Meeting Our Grief Together
It feels like we’ve been fighting COVID-19 for a lifetime. So many across the country are under stay at home orders, or otherwise encouraged to remain at home. Many have lost jobs and income, others have lost housing and transportation. And each day elected leaders, state and federal, gather behind podiums to give us the next batch of guidance and to forecast the potential impact of the virus.
The true effect this virus will have is yet to be fully understood, but it seems likely that the world we knew in 2019 will simply not return. Whether we are ready to admit it or not, the defining characteristic of these last few months has been, and will continue to be, loss and grief.
The President and the US’s lead immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci gathered in the White House press room this week and sent some shock waves throughout our communities when they estimated that the US could see between 100,000 and 240,000 coronavirus related deaths. This is a number greater than the US soldiers lost in the Vietnam War. There has been some doubt cast on these models, but the sight of a sitting US President informing the country that hundreds of thousands of citizens may die in the coming months sent a peal of anger, confusion, and anxiety across the nation.
Whether or not the President’s models are accurate, it is becoming increasingly clear that each of us will be touched by death related to COVID-19 in one way or another. What once felt like a distant threat, is now significantly more immediate.
Friends of mine across the country have shared that parents and neighbors have tested positive for coronavirus. Some are in critical condition, others are frightened about where and how they may have spread it before testing positive. Leaders, pundits, celebrities and many other well-known faces have tested positive over the last week as well. The uncomfortable and painful truth is that people we know will die from this disease.
But it isn’t only the loss of life that we face, but also the loss of a way of life. This virus and our communities’ responses have revealed a deep and painful reality about the systems and structures that are at play in our daily lives. For so many, a sense of identity is at risk when the revelation of a fraud, a heartbreaking disappointment is made known. Many who felt held by their confidence in the American Dream or the economic benefits of the wealthiest country in the world, found themselves feeling dangerously vulnerable for maybe the first time in their lives.
Others who have known the brokenness of our systems since their making are welcoming the rest of us to the bare-knuckled brutality of an economic and political structure that only knows how to play dirty. This will reveal a different kind of grief, but one that is acutely felt. The grief of being ignored and disregarded. Poor folk in this country have been crying for justice literally forever, and to see now the middle class and the wealthy suddenly awakened to this harsh reality may feel like gaslighting on a massive scale. How could we have known?
I don’t know that many of us have wrapped our heads around the significant grief that lies on the horizon. The loss of loved ones, the loss of a way of life, the loss of trust in one another. I know that I haven’t yet come to grips with it, though the penetrating anxiety I can feel in my body points to a reality I have yet to face. For the last couple of weeks, I find myself waking up with what feels like a weight placed carefully on my chest, a sense of urgency that is prodding me to do more and be productive in an effort to lighten the load. I can sense my need to unplug and disassociate from the pain and the confusion that are rippling across our media, and the difficulty in doing just the basic things like make a phone call or write an email.
My body is telling me a hard truth, one that I don’t want to hear; loss and grief are at the door.
Knowing this, I am challenging myself to prepare for what’s ahead by allowing myself to listen to the story my body is telling me. I will allow myself to encounter and feel this grief, even though I really don’t want to. I will reach out to the people I love and let them know that I am grieving and that I am there for them in their own grief. I will trust that others will be there with me.
This has always been the most comforting element of a theology of the cross; the knowledge that God in Christ is present in the midst of our deepest suffering, our most profound grief. While God is able to heal the world, to rescue the broken-hearted, God does not do this from a throne on high, but from the cross, from the midst of us.
Because God is with us in suffering, we are able to be with one another. And we are in such need of this with-ness. But the with-ness we require, in my opinion, is not the busyness of capitalistic productivity, or the overwhelming need to fix a problem over which we have very little control. The with-ness we require is the simple presence of one another in our grief and our loss. The quiet and powerful experience of a friend merely sitting with you, holding a hand, and listening.
This is I think, especially important for those of us in the church to remember. It is not our labor that is most needed right now, but our presence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together said:
“The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them.”
This call to listen is one I hope to hear more clearly in the coming weeks and months. I can not work my way out of grief. I can not produce my way out of loss. Nor can I do this for another. But I can be present with an ear to listen. I can speak my grief to those I love and ask for their simple presence. I can remind my community that God is present with us in the loss, speaking a word of mercy and comfort.
I am hopeful that I can defend myself against the impulse to retreat and outwork my grief. And I am hopeful that I can challenge others to do the same. Grief and loss are at the door. Let’s ensure that no one needs to meet them alone.
Originally published at https://nicholastangen.com on April 3, 2020.