According to the Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth, when a community experiences widespread trauma (like a pandemic outbreak), our immediate response can often resemble the “heroic.” We rise to the occasion. We imagine and execute a hundred creative solutions to problems that had not existed just days before. We master Facebook Live. We manage virtual meetings and even host virtual youth group.
After a few weeks we take a step back and marvel at what’s been accomplished.
But at the very moment we realize these victories, we realize something else too: We realize “I don’t really like virtual worship.” “I’m zoomed out.” “I have no idea if or when or how this will end.” In short, we realize this is really hard.
Some of us have managed to stay so busy in this “heroic” phase that we haven’t created much space to grieve the losses this pandemic has wrought.
Perhaps that makes sense. Some of our congregations and communities have been ravaged by the loss of loved ones, jobs, and security. For such folks, the grief is on the surface and unavoidable. But in many places, rates of infections and death aren’t so high. Our immediate family and friends are mostly healthy. Finances are precarious but we don’t know anyone personally who's been financially ruined. Our losses are not necessarily actual and discrete losses (the death of a sibling, the permanent loss of a job). They are more like what psychologists call “ambiguous loss.”
Ambiguous loss is the kind of loss we associate with a loved one declining in the face of Alzheimer's disease. It’s not that we lose that person entirely the day of their diagnosis. It’s that they and we lose little bits of each other gradually and imperceptibly over months, years, and even decades. Sometimes the loss is obvious, sometimes it’s subtle. But in either case, the losses pile up over time.
Many of our losses in the face of COVID-19 are ambiguous: the loss of human contact and touch, the accumulated loss of long absences from friends and family, the loss of security, the loss of a sense of freedom, the loss of future goals and milestones. For Christians, we've lost the hug on the way into church; the nursery volunteer eager to soothe our bawling child; the church 'grandpa' passing out candy to the children of mildly annoyed parents, the palpable grace of receiving the sacrament shoulder to shoulder with diverse brothers and sisters in Christ. These losses may be hard to name and articulate in the moment, but they are multiplying rapidly.
And these losses, too, need to be grieved. Because if they are not grieved now, their spiritual, physical, mental and emotional consequences will spasm for years to come. Just as epidemiologists fear our uneven response to this first wave of infections could lead to an even more dangerous second wave, so too, our attempts to “busy” and “hero” our way through this first wave of losses may lead to an even more dangerous second wave of grief.
Losses that are not grieved but stuffed down become fertile ground for all manner of harmful behavior: addiction, neglect, distance, and resentment.
What good news then, that our faith offers such good resources for articulating grief! At the heart of our faith is God’s Son enduring suffering and articulating despair. The psalms are packed with language of sorrow and loss. The most formative experiences of the Israelites included extended slavery and exile. One of the most defining realities of the early church was persecution and threat.
In other words, the Christian faith is not meant to be lived once we’ve moved past grief. It’s meant to be lived through grief. Just as surely as there is a time for God’s people to rejoice, there is a time to mourn.
What about You and Your Church?
So how are you embracing distinctly Christian grief work during this season? Are there practices your congregation has found helpful to name and grieve ambiguous losses? While we have established rituals to grieve the deaths of loved ones, for almost all other losses, we are without an agreed-upon playbook.
I’d love to hear how you have been doing this. Share your ideas and suggestions for how we and our congregations can grieve the losses that have occurred and prepare for the losses that are to come.