Tag Archives: pandemic

Grief: Make room to grieve in every way you need

I wonder if what has been making us mean in the last few years is unprocessed grief. Maybe we have not grieved at all, or haven’t considered all the ways our souls are working through the losses and sadness we carry.

Do people in the United States have good ways to grieve anymore? Were you taught anything by your family system that helps you?

I am connected to many people who are not conversant in grief at all. If I suggest we talk about their loss and the grief they feel about it, they almost immediately deflect. They can talk about trauma, anxiety and depression, which are words the therapeutic language we use allows.  But the deeper, soulful grief they are passing through and which they will continue to bear is hard to admit. For many men, especially, grieving seems weak, shameful, irrelevant, or just annoying.

You can see grief behind the meanness

It is possible, isn’t it, that not making room for grief is contributing to how mean we are getting. Many people have noticed our agression and disrespect growing, especially if they drive a car, and even more viscerally if they have been to the U.S. southern border. Americans are meaner. David Brooks wrote a great (long!) article about becoming meaner in The Atlantic last fall. But he did not highlight grieving.

Even though we went through a pandemic and even though the death and fear of it is not really over, Americans generally seem to brush off their need to grieve. Our president, at the outset of the health emergency, minimized the disaster and his followers loudly distrusted the vaccines which undoubtedly saved the lives of millions of the 111 million Americans who have been infected, so far — (yes, a full third of the country! and it may be more). Even with the vaccines, 1.2 million people have died from Covid so far in the U.S. — that’s over 1/7 of the estimated deaths worldwide. Donald Trump is famous for appearing on the porch of the White House, fresh from the hospital, still having trouble breathing, pointedly denying anything significant was happening.

I know many of us did not take his lead, but I think the country, by and large, buried its grief. The persistent irritation of unrecognized, denied, or avoided grief could make us mean and even sicker than we might normally be.

Maybe Trump takes his cues from the screen, since he is famous for having a lot of TV time. The screens contribute to our inability to grieve. We often learn how to live from them. And the screens are sketchy about what they teach about grief.

If you see grieving on the screen, it often moves through in a few moments. Some movies are enlightening stories of grief, of course — but even those films tidy things up, generally, after about two hours. Learning grief from film or TV shows may stunt us. They may desensitize us to our personal process because our catharsis happens while watching someone else, and someone who is not real, at that. It is not the same as having our own experience.

Our experiences rarely match  the screen. Most screens show grief in stereotypic ways. A Reddit ranter says:

I’m home alone watching Kingsman (I know) and the main character loses the son he spent his whole life protecting and after 3 mins of air time grieving, he’s smacked into reality and goes back to work…. Like, is this annoying to anyone else but me? A close friend can give you a pet [sic] talk to physically hit you and now you’re okay again?!!?!

The boatload of heroic spy and superhero movies we’ve had in the last decade usually include this message about grief: there is no time for it. Besides, we’re too tough to give into it. Heroes tend to say, “I’ll honor your moment of silence for the latest victims, even acknowledge your single tear squeezing out. But then it is back to the work of revenge or raining overwhelming force on our enemies.” For instance, here is Thor dealing with his grief in Guardians of the Galaxy:

He gets slapped. Then he “gets it together” in record time. Grief meets meanness on the screen.

Maybe we need grieving room

Leanne FriesenLast week a book my acquaintance wrote about grieving showed up in my Kindle. I forgot I pre-ordered it. I admit, I was hesitant to open it because I really admire this woman and I did not want to not like her book. But as soon as I read a few pages, I could not put it down. It is a charming, honest, helpful book about grief: Grieving Room: Making Space for All the Hard Things after Death and Loss. In a world that wants to rush toward closure and healing, Leanne Friesen gives us reasons, and maybe more important, gives us permission to let loss linger. She teaches us to give ourselves and others grieving room when the very worst happens.

I wrote a bit about grief last week, too, because I need to give it room, just like anyone else. I was not prepared for loss. I think the most I heard about grief in my family growing up was when my mom shouted “Good grief!” — which isn’t quite the same as demonstrating healthy living or having a serious discussion!

Reading Friesen’s book creates much-needed time to meditate on old, unfinished griefs and space to accept more recent, raw ones. She is mainly reflecting on her own life-changing experience of losing her relatively-young sister to cancer. But I think what she says easily applies to losing several years to a pandemic, to vicariously losing mass-shooting victims or Palestinian children, to being fired from your job, to losing your child to estrangement, or to many of the other losses we don’t think to make room for.

She also focuses on her own emotions, which she can readily access; there is lots of crying, angry outbursts, and tenderness. That does not mean you can’t use her book to help you grieve the way you do. Men who have rarely cried as an adult can read it, traumatized people whose losses are terrifying can enter in at their present level, even Christians who think the Holy Spirit bears all their griefs so they don’t have to can benefit.

The Bubble

One of the most helpful images in Grieving Room comes in the chapter “Room to Never Get Over It: Always Missing the One You Lost.” In that chapter Friesen faces the hard thing we all face when someone asks, “Are you over it yet?” — or when we fear someone might ask that because we should be over it, or when we ask ourselves that question because we want to be over it. She says:

There is a season when you live right inside that big cloud of grief. In the grief bubble, it feels like you live surrounded by grief all the time. This is a normal part of grieving. It is also true that at some point, we transition to a time where we live beside the bubble, instead of inside it. Moving to this season can take a long time. Even when the big cloud shifts, your grief never really leaves. It is still part of us, forever.

It could take years for us to get out of our grief bubble. If we don’t make room for that reality, we’ll probably get mean to ourselves or others — and who knows what else might happen?

This award winning short film reduces the process of grieivng to ten minutes, but it seems more accurate to me than many depictions. You might see the bubble in it.

Jesus in the dust with us

Even though Friesen is a protestant church leader, she realized she might not make room for resurrection. In the chapter right next to the one I just mentioned is “Room for Resurrection: Starting to Find New Life Again.” She writes:

One of my favorite quotations, from Frederick Buechner, says, “The resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing.” [The Final Beast (1965)]…Had the idea of all of us rising together ever meant something to me before? It had a little but even more now. Until I lived through my very own worst thing, I didn’t know the truth of the idea that the resurrection means the worst thing isn’t the last thing. It took a lot of death for me to start to see resurrection. I had never really needed  resurrection until [my sister] died.

Unlike Friesen, many of us are tragically alone in our grief! To hear her tell it, her life is full of family, good friends and caring churches. I think it’s possible she could make room for the many hard things of grief because room had been made for her and her emotions in her family and community. She can look forward to rising from the dead with her family and friends!

That may not be where you are at right now. For one thing, the pandemic killed a lot of churches and the ones left are still recovering. Nothing will ever be the same. So if you had that togetherness it might be hard to find now. On top of that, you may have ended up too alone, locked down, to dare grieving. You’re more like Thor: hyper responsible for everything (but without a hammer) getting slapped. With morality gone, like David Brooks claims, and Christianity taking a nose-dive, you might basically be without God, too.  So many of us suffer a deep sense of being completely on our own.

Being alone, or feeling alone, might make it that much harder to to get out of that overwhelming bubble of grief. Grief might become a chronic experience. Resurrection, the other side of the deaths we experience and the losses we carry, might seem like a fantasy.

The New Testament is honest about how slowly resurrection dawns on the grieving disciples.  The Lord’s #1 woman, Mary Magdalene, thinks Jesus is the groundskeeper outside his tomb. At one point the risen Jesus finds his irritated disciples gone back to fishing.

The resurrected Jesus can be hard to recognize. He has a different look on the other side of death. We do too. Things look and we look different on the other side of our losses. I think the whole world looks different after the millions of deaths during the pandemic.

Before death comes to us or on us, resurrection can be an easy thing to keep on the outside of us, maybe more like a nice thought or an inspiring principle. Even Peter rebuked Jesus for wanting to go to Jersualem — no death, no need for resurrection, let’s keep things controllable. When death gets inside our defenses, into our heart,  resurrection becomes crucial. When grief can no longer be denied or prevented, we have nowhere to go except to the one who holds the words of eternal life.

I think this very short video does a nice job of bringing us to rest in the hope of Jesus being with us, not only in the bubble, but in the challenge of facing death, inside and out, every day. I’ll leave you with it. When you say with the psalmist in Psalm 22,

“My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death,”

may you experience how God lays down with you in your dust.

If you lost Jesus, start by looking in your desires

It is a familiar post-pandemic story. “When I was locked away from people, bombed by loss, steeled against what seemed like an inevitable disease, my faith dribbled away like I had a leak in my soul. “

Some people had the exact opposite experience, of course. The solitude of the season was like fallow ground for them. When they got out from behind their masks they felt renewed and refocused on what is important. They bloomed.

It is not uncommon, however, to hear people tell a different story. When they got back to church, it was gone. People were divided over whether it was safe to meet. About a third of the people had disappeared. The pastors were often exhausted — they went through a pandemic, too! But now they were supposed to present what used to be with less people and less money. What’s more, so many churches chose the pandemic to take a scathing look at their racism, homophobia and patriarchal tendencies. The post George Floyd movement had just gotten to the church when the virus hit and could not be postponed. So when people came back to their community bearing their griefs, with new anxieties to face and thirsty for love, they were surprised by the coldness and suspicion with which they were met. It is like the whole country got strangled, wrung out and did not have a lot to give.

So a lot of people are not in church anymore. And of those people who are wandering, a lot feel they have lost Jesus. They are in the dark. At worst, I think they are holing up and hoping nothing worse happens. At best, I think they are looking for lost desires to be met. If the latter description fits you, hold on to those desires, they will probably see you through.

Befriending our desires

In his book Befriending Our Desires, Philip Sheldrake encourages us to attend to the desires that either drive us to despair or drive us to overcome the unnecessary limitations of our present circumstances.

Desire haunts us. You could say that desire is God-given and, as such, is the key to all human spirituality. Desire is what powers our spiritualities but, at the same time, spirituality is about how we focus our desire. At the heart of Christian spirituality is the sense that humanity is both cursed and blessed with restlessness and a longing that can only be satisfied in God. It is as though our desire is infinite in extent and that it cannot settle for anything less. It pushes us beyond the limitations of the present moment and of our present places towards a future that is beyond our ability to conceive. This is why the greatest teachers of Christian spirituality were so concerned with this God-filled desire and with how we understand it and channel it

In a time when so many of us feel like we did not get what we want and are not getting what we want, what do we do? Do we turn off our desires? distract ourselves even more? turn to law instead of grace to circumvent desires?

First of all, those questions are probably answered by considering how you see God. Is God full of desire? Some theologians have presented God as a sexless, “ground of being” or an abstraction like the “unmoved mover.” I say those are very weak views, when the love of God is poured out so wantonly in Jesus. God wants us, desires relationship with us. His delight in us reveals infinite enjoyment. Is your God full of desire?

On the human side of viewing God, many say the goal of all human desire is God. So does this mean that all other desires are a distraction? That has often been taught. Does it mean I should be celibate so sexual desire does not get in my way? Many monks have thought so. Or is God met at the heart of all desire? That might seem suspicious to you if you have been suppressing your desires for Jesus. But I think a thoroughly Christian, incarnational answer is Jesus is the heart of desire. C.S. Lewis is famous for saying:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. ― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses

Proven ways to find Jesus again

New prayer

Ignatius Loyola taught that prayer, our basic connection with God, was all about focusing our desire. Many of my clients bump up against that thought like a wall. They don’t know what they desire. Or they know what they spend their life chasing would not satisfy them if they finally got it. They think they must either ramp up the chase or quit. The pandemic stripped away a lot of what we could get, it took away years of time and took the lives of loved ones. Many of us are still at the bottom of all that and feel we can’t even find Jesus. That’s a good time to pray, if you are with Ignatius in his cave, when you aren’t asking for a new job or just asking to stop doing self-destructive things. When we are wrestling with desire we may come to know how our desires connect with God’s.

Waiting

Some people say as they age, old ways and images wear out and they feel alone in a new kind of darkness. Where is the Jesus I knew? I know after my church reneged on agreements and exiled me, I felt adrift without my church. I was not prepared for that! I am not alone. The surprising new post-Covid statistic is older people are leaving the church in great numbers. They were the mainstays! But one does not need to feel old to feel a bit lost these days.

Many spiritual writers see this kind of wandering in the dark as a ripe, meaningful, realistic place to be. A dryness of experience means you feel what showers of blessings would be like if it rained, not that you don’t care. The loss of previous images and experiences of God, leads into a darkness or an “unknowing” in which desire alone becomes the force that drives us onwards. For Julian of Norwich, “longing” and “yearning” are key experiences in our developing relationship to God. Likewise, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing says, “Now you have to stand in desire all your life long” (Chapter 2). Now is the time to stand open-handed and open-hearted, not assuming that we know best or that we know anything very much. Now is the time to wait in trust, to be like Mary asking the angel, “How can this be?” Waiting is one of the hardest lessons for the serious seeker after God. When we stand in desire we are ready to struggle. We are anticipating a change in  perspective and waiting in trust for God to act in us.

Discernment

Our desire reveals how incomplete we are. The pandemic stripped a lot of us down to our basic desires, like people often talk about when they have narrowly escaped death and now know what is most important (and it is not the 401K). Our desires highlight what we are not, or what we do not have. So desire cracks us open to possibility. It forces us into the future. You might see it in terms of sex, to which desire is often restricted. An orgasm is a wonderful, physical, mutual, experience of now – desire satisfied! But it also feels transcendent. Desires ground us in the present moment and at the same time point to the fact this moment does not contain all the answers or everything we need or want. Discernment is a journey through desires – a process whereby we move from a multitude of desires, or from surface desires, to our deepest desire which contains all that is true and vital about us. If you are missing Jesus, I’d start the search there.

Change

I’ve said quite a few times that living in the U.S. and following Jesus is very hard. Americans take perfection to an extreme and we have the money to make it happen. If desire is all about openness, possibility and a metaphor for change, what does that do to our ideals of perfection and to a God who “changeth not?’ Get the job done. Make it work. Just do it.

For many of us, life is supposed to be organzied and predictable. For most people, I think heaven is pretty static like that. It is where things get finished and we get all that matters to us. The afterlife is all “eternal rest” and no more tears. People see it as freedom from desire because there is no need for “more” and because the sexual connotations of desire are overridden by union with God.

But no one can perfectly know what “eternal life” ultimately means. I don’t see the age to come as an endless, static existence with the unmoved mover. I think it will be more like life with the Creator we encounter day by day. Eternal life will surely have a dynamic quality to it, a life in which we shall remain beings of desire.

Thomas Traherne (d. 1674) is often considered as the last of England’s “metaphysical poets,” which includes John Donne and George Herbert. Most of his poetry remained unknown until 1896, when two of his manuscripts were discovered by chance in a London bookstall. This first stanza of Traherne’s poem “Desire” begins with praise to God for the desire that promises Paradise and burns with the presence of it in the here and now.

For giving me desire,
An eager thirst, a burning ardent fire,
A virgin infant flame,
A love with which into the world I came,
An inward hidden heavenly love,
Which in my soul did work and move,
And ever, ever me inflame,
With restless longing, heavenly avarice
That never could be satisfied,
That did incessantly a Paradise
Unknown suggest, and something undescribed
Discern, and bear me to it; be
Thy name for ever prais’d by me.

To find the Jesus you may have recently lost, step away from politics, processes and problems long enough to let your desires rise and then befriend them. Take them seriously like they matter, like you matter. Don’t follow the first blush of reality they hint at, but listen to them and let them lead you deeper into what is at the heart of life and the heart of you.

Grief is everywhere: Open to joy by acknowledging it

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.

LaToya and Peaches Foster at the  headstone of Lovell Brown at the Leavenworth National Cemetery Aug. 30.

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.”

Illustration: Peskimo at Synergyart.co.uk

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.

Help for processing the pandemic: Our mental health has taken a hit

Click pic for Forbes article by Jessica Gold

Jesus followers do not have different mental health issues than everyone else. They may be more likely to use spiritual bypass to defend themselves, but they are mostly experiencing the same kind of trauma everyone else has been experiencing during this endless pandemic.

The mental health impact of the last year is a topic on the minds of many people. Especially health-care providers! Leah Blain (who inspired this post) came up with a checklist for the Inquirer last week – all the news outlets have to have one. Because our poor mental health is big news. People who do research keep verifying the troubling reality. During the pandemic depression and anxiety have increased – a lot! More people have sleep problems. Intimate partner conflicts and violence have grown. Alcohol and substance abuse have increased. And the new addiction on the block, screen addiction, has taken over territories it was just influencing before. All these issues are not going to disappear overnight.

We hope this is really getting over with

The pundits were wringing hands and blaming people for less job creation than predicted last Friday. We’re all taking the pulse of the country because we suspect more shoes are about to drop and more loved ones and loved things are about to die. At the same time, now that the age for vaccine eligibility is going down, many of us are looking forward to a post-pandemic life without masks and social distancing. I flew out to see a relative in Seattle already and went to Disney! I’m an early-adopter. I’m ready to visit friends, hug loved ones, have meetings in person, and much more.

Jumping into change injects some hope into our daily lives. But it is tempting to focus on the positives even when true recovery from the deadly 2020 is going to take some re-envisioning of the future and some processing of the past. We’re not there yet and we’re not even sure what “there” is or even sure what just happened! I try to help people emerge from trauma and trouble every day and it only seems “easy” in theory. In fact, change and recovery takes quite a long time for most people. As we emerge from the valley of the shadow of death, it will be important to consider how our experiences over the last year might be sticking with us and recognize when we or our loved ones need help.

View of the sunset from the cave inside in Thasos, Greece.

It will take some time to emerge

We all need support every day. But then there are days when we really need support. Those days are now. The full impact of a major stress event or trauma usually is not felt until weeks or months after the initial event. I often hear from clients that the grief they did not process in the brief time they were given right after the death of a loved one rose up later in disguised ways. It often appeared as part of the collection of distressing feelings that brought them to therapy. The pandemic is still stressful; it has been traumatic; we are suffused with grief (or avoiding it).

The particular stressors that came along with the pandemic resemble the kind that come with a military deployment more than resemble those that come with a onetime blow like a natural disaster or an act of violence. The prolonged stress, uncertainty, separation from loved ones, and, in many cases, trauma, kicked many of us into “survival mode.” We adapted. Most of us will need time to transition out of our high anxiety gear. For others, “survival mode” kicked us out of gear and we will need time to transition out of our depression or dissociation.

I think everyone with a soft enough heart will be dealing with the massive massive impact of massive loss – and not just the loss of time and maybe livelihood. As many as five million people in the United States are estimated to have lost at least one close relative  or friend to the coronavirus! Loss and grief are everywhere. As of January, 60% knew someone who has tested positive, 33% had a family member or close friend who had become seriously ill, 19 percent knew someone who had died. Those numbers continue to increase. That is a lot of people experiencing grief or hardening their hearts against it. Grief often comes in waves and can take time to work through, even under typical circumstances. The profound impact of so many of us being forced to grieve in isolation, often not able to say farewell to loved ones who died alone, is as incalculable as it is heartbreaking.

And let’s not forget that all this stress, trauma, and grief is occurring alongside racial trauma, political unrest, and other pandemic-related stressors that affect millions worldwide such as food scarcity,  unemployment and the loss of schooling.

It will take our whole “village” to recover. You can get things started by considering what you need to do to process your experiences. Just experiencing something happening to you is not necessarily “processing” it; it is more likely being processed by it. As we are coming out of this terrible season, it would make sense to go to your journal, if you have one, or just get a piece of paper and write down some ideas you think would help you to transition into post-pandemic life. You are probably wounded in some way; what would it take to heal? Just suggesting that process may have spurred some of us to look on ourselves with compassion. That’s important. Answer the question: “What steps can I take to get started on this new life we are all making?”

How could a professional help?

Many of us don’t feel like we have a lot of capacity to do much for ourselves, right now. We’re hopeless and helpless — and so tired! Professional support could help. But a bit of courage to address emotional and behavioral difficulties in our cells, families, friendships, and marriages would also help.

If you notice any of the following changes in yourself or a loved one, consider seeking professional help:

  • Anger, irritability, or difficulty getting along with others.  I’ve heard from a number of people that driving in Philadelphia has become even crazier than it used to be. The roadways seem to be one place where we are angry and can’t get along.
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much. The pandemic has a way of exacerbating what was already present. Your unhealthy sleeping habits may have become more pronounced and now you have a chance to see them. For some people sleeping is a way to avoid mental pain, so it indicates some need for action.
  • Social withdrawal.  I can note this in myself. I had a day full of phone calls from friends and relatives the other day and I felt a bit bored and wanted to go back to being alone. I relished those phone conversations, but they overwhelmed my underused capacity to connect! People, like me, keep talking about how we all acclimated to forced avoidance and it will take time to get out of it. Sex with partners has dropped off during the pandemic, too, even among married partners, as pornography and other solo sex practices have increased. It is worth taking steps to reconnect in intimate ways, too. It will take time.
  • Mentally beating yourself up.  Being left alone, actually or philosophically, this year put us under a lot of personal responsibility. A lot of us have been subject to a great deal of self-criticism. I think you can see our self-loathing projected onto our unkind politics in small groups and nationally. We are not kind to ourselves or each other and we are out of touch with our loving God.

You probably note some of these troubles at work in yourself. They are like an atmosphere in which most of my clients are experiencing their journey toward awareness and healthy choices these days. Given that the social contacts that help us solve our problems are frayed right now, you might like some professional help. For some of us, some brief therapy to help us change our minds and behavior might be great. For others, a deeper season of working with the realities that surfaced in this bizarre year might be in order. Most providers are providing teletherapy, which is an effective alternative to the more organic and deeper office visits (Circle Counseling website).

Take care of yourself.

I wish that good-bye phrase above would begin to replace “stay safe.” I’m toying with the idea of committing to saying, “God be with you, till we meet again” like our ancestor incorporated into the language. We’ll see. Regardless, it would be great if we have a season of reaching in and out, and reaching to God for an outbreak of renewal. Let’s have a mutual project of taking care of ourselves.

If you’ve stopped showering, habitually eat comfort foods that don’t comfort, have stopped calling people who love you, etc., pick one thing you can change over the next week. Then build on what changes one step at a time. Start small. Get dressed and/or get out of the house each day. Or add fruit or veggies to your meals. Make a list of people with whom you’d like to connect and call one. If you’re vaccinated, what prevents you from going out to dinner?

Social support is probably the most important predictor of recovery after a trauma. Now is a great time to tap into your support networks, check in with friends and family by Zoom, text, phone, or in person. Make the church come alive again! Invite other reluctant people to get into your cell and begin in-person meetings – we can do them outdoors for the pre-vaccinated. Re-introduce yourself to the neighbors. Consider how to get back into the office.

Most of all, don’t do anything that is not drenched with the grace of God, if you can help it. Cooperate with Jesus in how you treat yourself — you are the beloved of God. It has been a long, tough year, and it’s going to take time to reemerge and recover. But we will get there. We’re even more likely to get to renewed mental health if we do it together, with Jesus.

Back to the workplace and back to church meetings: Thoughts on re-entry

Everyone is talking about going back to work. For a lot of us, “going to work” during the pandemic has meant going to a newly-repurposed room in the house or to a card table in the living room. For many others, like nurses and delivery people, nothing changed except to become harder.

Now things are beginning to change. One of our friends suggested we give a workshop on returning to relationships, now that they are vaccinated. Connecting feels awkward. And we feel awkward about feeling awkward. So here is a first attempt to add to the conversation about re-entry.

Avoidance

The social anxiety many of us are experiencing, even when we see grandma again, has to do with overcoming the avoidance we installed during the shut down. We avoided getting sick for a long time. We were told to avoid people, so we arranged our lives to do so. We hid ourselves behind literal masks — normally we just use psychological masks to stay safe. But we adopted a further barrier between us and what could hurt us. That deliberate avoidance is not going away instantly.

When we want to overcome anxiety, it helps to “sneak up on” the thing we are avoiding. We can gently approach the situation or thought that scares us and undo the fear step by step. When we feel anxious about seeing someone we can take a deep breath, remember what we want, and note what we fear. Then we can do that behavior we decided ahead of time we would like to do, like hug someone, or shake their hand, or tell them we are still fist bumping, or wave to them and tell them we will call them later to catch up.

Robin Ware will tell you all you need to know — for a price.

What about church meetings?

Pretty soon, we will be asked to meet in person, again. All our congregations have tried it at some level. Being asked to attend a meeting will call on each of us to have an opinion, make a decision, and enact a behavior we have been avoiding. Religious gatherings were one thing the government could easily point to as exactly what should not be happening if we wanted to avoid spreading the coronavirus. I think the following understandings will help us all make it back into face-to-face community.

Leaders need to get some buy-in. Sorry for the capitalist metaphor (we’re deeper than that). It describes the emotional and time resources we need to commit to “re-open” the church (as if you could close it). The leaders need to demonstrate their  understanding that while all of us have experienced this crisis, we have not all experienced it the same way. Some of us have conditions that increase our risk of serious COVID-19 infection and will still be reluctant to return to the meeting. Others may be eager to leave online church meetings, but have caregiving responsibilities that make it difficult or impossible for them to do so. Sensitivity to this reality is a must. Quite a few people are reluctant to get the vaccine and their reasons are not all political. While we can’t expect our leaders to come up with a uniform agreement or a set of behaviors for us, we can expect them to consider all of us who need to come together in love as we are. We’ll need to help them.

We need time to adapt. Our buildings have changed while we were gone from them. Our habits have changed. Our outlooks have changed. The pandemic year may seem relatively brief, but it had a traumatizing impact. Responses to trauma embed themselves deep in our brain. It takes time to re-order mental habits [a favorite video about that]. We were forced to adjust one way, now we will be invited to adjust again. I did not say “adjust back” since that is not going to happen. Faith, hope and love survived the pandemic, but the ways we express those traits will never feel the same as they did. It will take time to figure out how to express them now. We will need to rebuild. Rebuilding will be advanced after we get back into our buildings. We can help the church adapt by participating in our dialogue with faith, hope and love and not with further fear and avoidance. The church cannot really be responsible for how fearful we are. We will need to walk with Jesus ourselves to overcome that.

Re-acclimating is not just a job for the leaders. We’ve been away from one another for a long time and a lot has happened. The people in my cell experienced a ton of change. The cell itself changed to one that included people from three states! Is it even possible for that cell to start meeting face to face? The leaders are going to come up with a communications strategy that allows us to share a common page for re-entry and considering who we have become. But they can’t think of everything. We are all going to have to do our best to speak up and to speak up for others. Just imagining how we retain the remote connections we have made online and organize public meetings is quite a task! We don’t want to wear out our pastors as we demand they “wait on our table,” even though we put it in Oregon! Jesus will maintain our love, but we will all need to exercise it.

We’ve always been about what is next. I hope we have a leg-up on people who might be tempted to restore what the pandemic stole from them. Personally, I am working on starting from here. Like any other year, I have losses and I have gains. I am messed up and I am a lot wiser. I had some failures and had successes. Unlike people who have no hope, we Jesus followers don’t just inventory our years as if they were investments. We tend to bloom where we are planted. Circle of Hope quite consciously accepts that we are the presence of the future, not a retread or an improvement on the past. I think I have learned a thing or two about myself and the world during the pandemic and will probably learn some more from it. I believe Jesus will use it all for his glory. Another round of resurrection is imminent.