The Donna Summer song that helps get me through this silent grief

It’s late spring, the WHO and the U.S. have ended all official COVID-19 health emergency declarations, and the country, we are told, should move on from the past three years of the pandemic. Yet grief remains in the air, thick as pollen. It’s not just excess histamine making our eyes water, it’s the reality of the enormous losses we have suffered—nearly 1.2 million souls—and the effects of this collective devastation must not be underestimated.

I have the credentials to make such a claim because I am the creator and curator of, an online pandemic remembrance story project, and the editor of a new anthology that is the only COVID memorial of its kind. Since I speak to the COVID-bereaved every day, my thoughts are intertwined with their passions and concerns. I know they worry that their losses are already being minimized or entirely forgotten. I know that many are estranged from their families due to the politicization of the virus, vaccine disinformation and denial of science. And I’m positive that the anxiety and guilt many have about how their loved ones disappeared and then died frightened and alone is an unrelenting theme that haunts their days and nights.

Earlier in the COVID sphere, when the death counts were mounting, and our nightmares were full of refrigerated trucks full of bodies, several journalists reported on the sole U.S. memorial to the victims of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, a 2018 monument erected in Barre, Vermont. I researched and read these stories, discovering that all of them contained interviews predicting that this pandemic would be different, that we’d learn from our history, do better this time, and honor the dead.

Now, however, opinion pieces and news items about the alleged end of the COVID-19 pandemic focus on the notion that if we don’t learn from our mistakes in public health policy and governance, we are destined to make them again whenever another variant or new pathogen emerges. Pay attention, we’re admonished, or you’ll be sorry later. This is correct, of course, but cognitive psychology teaches us that our capacity to forget is influenced by monotony and information overload — and certainly not just as it relates to the pandemic.

We cannot move forward without encouraging and facilitating remembrance. It’s our only emotional antidote.

The knowledge that our pasts influence our present and future is so basic to our understanding of the human condition that it’s startling how often we ignore it, even though we cannot listen to a country song, read a memoir or even watch an episode of “Ted Lasso” without being enveloped by the past/present paradigm. A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine smirked and referred to the work I’ve been doing since 2020 as “Oh, those COVID stories?” as if her life (and she’s a psychologist!) was utterly separate from the narratives of others. Yes, her dismissiveness hurt my ego but I was reminded, again, of how societal empathy has diminished during the pandemic and been replaced with disinterest.

How are we to reconcile this, to separate the fatigue and vitriol from the essential need to remember all those we’ve lost, and continue to lose? Maybe I’ve turned into an idealist, but I feel it’s imperative that we look within ourselves, at our own histories—with purpose and honesty — if we are to recognize that all of us are, in various ways, connected to pandemic grief. This is what public health officials and entities like the CDC are neglecting: We cannot move forward without encouraging and facilitating remembrance. It’s our only emotional antidote.


In December 2020, I was already months into the WhoWeLost Project when I discovered my personal pandemic anthem. Driving back from masked food shopping, I absentmindedly flicked my fingers across the car radio buttons and landed on a snippet of Dan Fogelberg singing “Same Old Lang Syne.”  Although I had not just “met my old lover in the grocery store,” I found myself moved, and began to weep uncontrollably. I was so surprised by my reaction that I cried even harder and wound up pulling off to a strip mall parking lot to extend my catharsis.

As Donna Summer keeps singing, and I drive, losing myself entirely, in my mind’s eye I wind up beside my father.

Long ago, I was an adolescent Fogelberg fan girl, obsessed with his 1977 “Nether Lands” album, in love with the soulful gaze and artfully draped hair featured in every photograph of him. But by the time the holiday song “Same Old Lang Syne” was released in 1981, I had long moved on and thought his new work trite. Yet there I was, parked outside a dormant pizzeria, scratching at my mask rash, undone by the sound of his voice.

When I arrived home and pondered what I’d just experienced, I understood that my reaction to a song I never even liked was too potent to be ignored. After a deep Google dive, I came upon a 2017 album, released a decade after Fogelberg’s death due to prostate cancer, and began listening. “A Tribute to Dan Fogelberg” features tracks recorded by artists as diverse as Garth Brooks, Boz Scaggs and Train, but it’s the Donna Summer cover of “Nether Lands” that broke my heart open and still does.

Summer’s rendering is lush and melodramatic, bordering on a Broadway power ballad. When I play it (always only when driving), it calls up my childhood, fully formed, a solid boulder before me on the roadway. I am simultaneously an older woman gathering stories of pandemic loss, and a moody teenage poet, sprawled on a gold shag carpet, record player blaring. My father has not yet returned from the office, from the retinas and corneas and tiny screws keeping temple pieces attached. Downstairs, my mother is cooking dinner, with an ever-present glass of vermouth on the Formica countertop.

But always, as Donna Summer keeps singing, and I drive, losing myself entirely, in my mind’s eye I wind up beside my father, crumpled in a heap on a hot tar road on a summer morning in August 2009.

I know now I’ve been silently grieving for years, in a dark corner of my brain that began to be reawakened as soon as the news of disappearing families and final iPad farewells hit.

An optometrist, my father had gone for a morning walk and was struck by a car whose driver had no peripheral vision due to undiagnosed brain tumors. He died alone on the pavement and the image has been lodged in both my waking and dream life ever since. My father had remarried after my mother’s death a decade earlier, and his old and new families did not get along. My brother and I were banned from planning the funeral and afterward, when one of our family members politely asked that my dad’s veteran burial flag be given to his grandsons, a fight ensued that exploded with shoving, punches and blood. Awful discord and lawsuits followed. My brother and I were excluded from shiva and collective mourning. There were no proper goodbyes.

I know now I’ve been silently grieving for years, in a dark corner of my brain that began to be reawakened as soon as the news of disappearing families and final iPad farewells hit. All the uncertainty, the social media bullying and dangerous disinformation, resonated with me because the trauma inherent in what it means to lose someone to COVID was already part of my existence.

Of the many decisions I made when I designed the WhoWeLost website, one feature is mentioned by grievers the most: They appreciate that no comments are allowed. No one can post an opinion about the validity of a memory, or insert doubt about comorbidities. If you need to leave off a surname, or just go by initials, that’s fine. You don’t need to be part of any social media platform or download an app. I created a safe zone, a place my brother and I never had. Giving this to others has brought me great peace.


When Donna Summer sings “Nether Lands,” so much of the song’s power comes from juxtaposition — she recorded over the original master track with its rich orchestral arrangements, but her voice is utterly unlike Fogelberg’s. Distant from her disco hits, her operatic performance gives no hint that she would soon also pass away, five years before the tribute album was released. She’d asked to record “Nether Lands” because she said the song had helped her through hard times years before and she knew it “by heart.”

As do I — the song is part of my musical DNA; its lyrics returned to me without hesitation. We all have our own music that works this kind of magic, returning to us a specific time and place. Many of the people who write stories on the WhoWeLost website, and several stories in the anthology, cite specific songs as memory cues too. But they also conjure recipes, holidays, vacations, old love letters and drive-in movie theatres, among thousands of other personal touchstones. They share the jokes they would have recounted at Dad’s wake, if it had been allowed to take place.

Losing someone to COVID often means these memories are impossible to access without their origins being stolen or twisted.

I’m regularly asked how I cope with being the intermediary of such immense loss. Some have been more blunt, calling me a “grief sponge.” In truth, I am sad a lot, especially when there’s an uptick in the stories the site receives, which is currently the case since this spring represents the third anniversary of the first COVID surge, a triggering and difficult time for those who lost someone at the beginning of it all.

I don’t think you need to have a botched shiva following a surreal, tragic death to understand or empathize with what it feels like to lose someone to COVID. But I hope you do reach back and remember your grandpa and his dog, napping on the couch together, their sleepy smiles mirroring each other. I hope you recall a favorite teacher’s kindnesses but also your childhood fears of that bully who mocked your little brother. Remember that anxiety about an impending diagnosis. Think about the shame your cousins felt when your alcoholic uncle ruined Christmas dinner. In short, remember both the difficult and the joyful and internalize that losing someone to COVID often means these memories are impossible to access without their origins being stolen or twisted.

Last week, I followed my own advice and decided to see if the old online guest register from my father’s funeral was still on the facility’s website. I was shocked to find it all intact, though I don’t recall if I’d ever looked at the comments before. A lot of his patients had left notes and there was one that took my breath away: “He was always telling us stories and asking about our families. He cared about our lives, not just our eyes.” 

I walked around the house that afternoon, repeating the near-rhyme to myself: lives/eyes/lives/eyes. And all at once, everything made sense.

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