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How COVID-19 reshapes our views of life, and of loss

Many Western societies have not had to face death at the scale of COVID-19 since World War II, nearly 75 years ago. Could the grim reality of the coronavirus pandemic change the way we deal with life and loss? Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This Memorial Day, we remember veterans who died in combat.

    Since the end of World War II nearly 75 years ago, many Western societies have not had to face death at such a large scale. But COVID-19 has changed all that.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has been asking how the reality of the pandemic might change the way we talk about life and loss.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Insights from three survivors who witnessed slaughter.

    Norwegian Bjorn Ihler escaped the massacre of 69 young people by a right-wing gunman on the island of Utoya in 2011.

  • Bjorn Ihler:

    We are all going to come out of this with our stories of loss. We are all going to be affected in some way or another.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Syrian dissident Omar Alshogre withstood torture and murder in a notorious death camp of the Assad regime.

  • Omar Alshogre:

    Everybody is going to die. What you want is, like in prison, prisoners want to die, but they want to die — they want to sleep and don't wake, you know? They don't want to feel the pain of dying.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    World War II medic Ray Lambert saved scores of lives on Omaha Beach on D-day in 1944.

  • Ray Lambert:

    The longer that a person has knowing that they're going to die, the more concerned that they are of dying.

    Death is an incredibly taboo subject and very difficult for many people. And that makes us extremely ill-informed.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Rosie Inman-Cook runs a nonprofit that encourages people to discuss end-of-life wishes, so they can better prepare for death.

  • Rosie Inman-Cook:

    This awful pandemic is bring home to people that they are not immortal.

    For so long, we have all lived in this glorious golden world in the Western World, haven't we, where a lot of us haven't experienced any deaths of close relatives or friends until we're in middle age? And this is really bring it home to a lot of people how vulnerable we are as humans.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The ancient Greeks believed the dead had to cross the River Styx to enter the underworld or the afterlife.

    The concept of heaven sustained Omar Alshogre, as he languished in Syria's Saydnaya Prison, where more than 13,000 executions have taken place and Alshogre was almost beaten to death.

  • Omar Alshogre:

    Just the belt is like it's a rainy day. It's with the belts just coming, coming, and people hitting me, and like the metal and the electricity, and, like, without stop. It's just getting hurt of everything.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Is there some sort of inner strength that you tapped into that perhaps other people have that can save them?

  • Omar Alshogre:

    During my time in prison, we created this survival mechanism in our brain, where you think about everything as the best moment of your life.

    So, when they torture me, I count the belts they hit me with, how many belts. And the time they hit me with a belt, I imagine a tree growing in my garden in the paradise to make that concrete for myself.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    For the more secular or humanists, death is the very end.

    But according to Rosie Inman-Cook, that doesn't stop people from being irrational or superstitious.

  • Rosie Inman-Cook:

    For a lot of people, they still can't make a will, because they think they're tempting fate. They can't talk about their own death because they think they're going to induce it. There's a lot of fear.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Ray Lambert is currently locked down in North Carolina.

    We met in Normandy a year ago by the rock on Omaha Beach where, despite being shot twice and having a broken back, he treated the wounded and won the Medal of Honor.

  • Ray Lambert:

    When the ramp went down, every man was killed. Not one man got off that. And so they all had to be heroes.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    What about society as a whole? How do we have to change our attitudes in order so that we're not overwhelmed with fear of other people dying, of people close to us dying?

  • Ray Lambert:

    We knew that we had 15 percent of the troops going in that day that would die, but that wasn't on our minds so much.

    So, the continuous talk about this, is causing people to be nervous and getting angry about things. And if we could just stop that, then it would be a lot easier.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Unlike Lambert, Bjorn Ihler had no training to prepare for his brush with death. Six years ago, we went to the place where Ihler faced the gunman Anders Breivik.

  • Bjorn Ihler:

    I stood up at one point, and he aimed at me and fired. And I fell, but I wasn't hit. He was a terrible shot, luckily.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Despite the growing pandemic death toll, Ihler believes some good can emerge.

  • Bjorn Ihler:

    It's given people new connections to what they value. And I think that might also how we deal with things after the lockdown, after we get back to some kind of new normal, where we might hold on to some of those things that we value.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Are you saying that the proximity to death might actually enhance our lives?

  • Bjorn Ihler:

    Yes, I'm saying both that the proximity to death, the awareness that life is fragile and life is short that we have right now enhances our appreciation of what we have right now.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Having survived Syria, Omar Alshogre follows this mantra:

  • Omar Alshogre:

    People had to accept walking on two different lines, the line of living, working on your life like you will never die, and the line where you work on your life like you are dying tomorrow.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    With the global death toll nearing 350,000, Rosie Inman-Cook made this appeal:

  • Rosie Inman-Cook:

    This recent pandemic has brought on the need to discuss it with our nearest and dearest. If we don't talk about it, it makes it more awkward, and more taboo, and more disruptive, more distressing, more catastrophic when it happens.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Our existence now may be less certain than before. But, for centuries, there has been consistent advice from giants such as Leonardo da Vinci, who said, "A life well used brings a happy death."

    So, start living.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant.

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