Grief hangs over us like a cloud. Over 647,000 families have experienced the loss of a loved one since the onset of Covid-19. Climate change presents us all with a daily dread about more loss of normalcy. After two hurricanes flooding our cities and our basements in the Northeast, we are reeling. People try to keep the grief down, but it keeps bubbling up. If we keep trying to repress it, that is one more use of energy we need for doing more important things — like surviving, adapting and thriving.
Megan Devine (NPR in Boston) has been talking a lot about grief. Her conclusion is this: “The real cutting edge of human emotional development isn’t resilience, and it isn’t a stiff upper lip. It’s acknowledgment.”
Opportunities for acknowledgement are easy to find. We were walking around our neighborhood the other day and were glad to run into a neighbor who recently, suddenly lost her sixty-something husband to Covid-related attacks on his vital organs. Then the hurricane hit and the new roof on her home began to leak rain into her top floor bedroom. A sodden piece of drywall tape drooped low enough to be caught by the ceiling fan, so bits of wall and drops of water sprayed all over the room. It was a moment of “perfect storm,” when Covid and climate invaded her bedroom. As we talked, she was exhausted from grief and bravely putting one foot in front of another.
I was glad we stopped to hear the story and commiserate. It is always tempting to leave the grieving alone. “They probably don’t want to deal with me,” we think, or “I have no idea what to say.” Even as we were talking I gestured I was about to walk on, thinking I would overstay my welcome. But she began a new story and drew me back. She just needed to be together and talk. It opened up a little space for joy.
The summer is over
We rushed back to normal as the summer began. The economy opened up and bustled. I did some traveling. My friend began making money on his restaurant again. The church began to meet in person. Many people were vaccinated. It was like the weather report was “partly cloudy” instead “overcast.” The more sunshiny among us started to celebrate the future and move on after their survival. The need to get out of pain and uncertainty did not leave much space to process what happened to us. Grieving opens up space for new happiness if happiness doesn’t repress the grief.
Last Friday, health officials in Leavenworth, Kansas quietly updated a 78-year-old woman’s death certificate dated January 9, 2020, listing cause of death as Covid-19. Hers is now the first recorded pandemic death in the U.S. I wish we had honored the grief that followed her death on January 9, 2021. We missed the funeral for that lost year. I do not think the outpouring of emotion over the lost election in Washington was an adequate substitute, although it is hard not to think it provided an indirect outlet for feelings we resist having.
Now the death rate is again climbing as the vaccine-refusers have provided a suitable pool of victims for the Delta mutation. Many of the dying are from the same territories that supplied the mob that stormed the capitol. Children are going back to school and already, just a few days in, frightened parents are hearing about infections and some are arguing about masks. Many want to keep their kids out altogether.
We will be very needy on January 9, 2022 (or whenever the new first-death date is discovered) for ways to acknowledge our grief.
Would you say we aren’t that good with grief?
Sigmund Freud gets tagged with a lot because he was first and famous in many ways. But he was hardly alone in his influence. However, his paper called Mourning and Melancholia, struck a chord in 1917 with people reeling from the carnage of WWI and beginning to experience the horror of the last deadly pandemic. Megan Devine says,
The paper gave a framework for suppressing grief in order to embrace life, a seductive and reductive approach to mental and emotional health…He posited that you simply need to “withdraw” your energy from the person who died and attach it to someone else. Two years later, his own daughter died, followed soon after by his grandson. Freud himself recanted his paper in the wake of his personal experience, but by then, his initial position on grief had become canon.
The generally accepted way to deal with grief seems to be, at best, “keep it to yourself,” or at worst, “don’t think about it– move on.”
An example of this “stoic” mentality might be the many variations on the meme “Keep Calm and Carry On” that have been going strong since about 2008. They keep appearing, sometimes sincerely, on Facebook or Instagram. While it did not become poster during WW2, the original encouragement represents the spirit of the English response to their huge loss, displacement and fear. The same spirit carries on with the kind of “positivity” that floods social media. We’re encouraged to have a “stiff upper lip” in relation to the pandemic which coerces people to deny their losses and the losses of those around them. This week the screen was full of people in Louisiana saying, “I lost everything, but I am pushing” or “I can’t think about it or I will break down” and “I am tired of being resilient.”
Grief is good
In an era more adept with grief, less concerned with power and image, at least among normal people, Jesus talked to his disciples about their upcoming grief. His beloved disciple, John, remembered the moment:
Truly, truly I say to you that you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will grieve, but your grief will be turned into joy! Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one is going to take your joy away from you. (John 16:20-22 NASB)
There is a lot to learn here. But I think a couple of things speak to us about acknowledging our present grief.
- Jesus acknowledges it. Grief accompanies loss in its many forms. My grandchildren express it when they feel the loss of the cookie they imagined. We quickly teach that right out of them. By the time people are young adults, they are tough and keeping calm and distant from a lot of feelings. Some of my clients are so depressed by their inexpressible grief they feel numb.
- Jesus sees grief as birth pangs. It is terrible, but it signals something new is being born. People would like to skip the grieving of the pandemic and go right to whatever is being born. Chances are, whatever is being born is going to take all the time it needs.
- Grieving is a feeling that passes as newness inevitably comes. Even in grief we can feel the seeds of joy unless we are trying not to. If you lost your husband suddenly to Covid, that grief will have some staying power. But organizing around it would be a mistake. It will probably stick around, like the country remembering 9-11 and its legacy of destructive wars. But if you aren’t walking around on a beautiful day, if you don’t stop to talk, you’ll miss the sunshine of the earth and the love of neighbors that heal grief. You might even miss Jesus.
I will be grief-stricken this week. So many typical troubles will cloud my joy. Institutions like school and church will fail me. And the storms of Covid and climate change are upon us all. There is a lot of grief to go around and quite a bit we did not acknowledge yet. It won’t help to act like it shouldn’t happen or it didn’t. It will happen. How we suffer it and what we expect from it will make a big difference. Acknowledging it will begin the process of opening up new space for joy.