When physical distancing began in March, who could have ever imagined that five full months later, we would still be doing this? With no end in sight?
How are you dealing with loss?
Recently I have been in conversation with numerous couples whose wedding plans have dramatically changed due to the pandemic. For many, the grief over not being able to fulfill their dreams is crushing their spirits. Often I have heard a bride-to-be or groom-to-be say, “Well, at least no one in our families has died from the coronavirus. I shouldn’t feel so badly, because what is most important is that we are married.”
I shouldn’t feel so badly?
Since March, not only have many of us lost beloved family members and friends from COVID-19 or other causes, but we have endured a cascade of losses that have continued to build over time. Lost jobs. Lost income. Lost graduations. Lost weddings. Lost vacations. Lost daily routines. Loss of so much of what gives us joy: family gatherings, parties, concerts, festivals and more. Loss of feeling at ease in the world. Even lost ways of dealing with our losses.
We are living in a sea of loss.
As a culture, we are not adept at dealing with loss even under normal circumstances. All too often we want to explain it away or move on to the next thing we think we need to do. While a hospice chaplain, I was stunned on a daily basis by how many people would apologize for crying about dying or their loved ones dying! Perhaps it should be no surprise that a culture that even apologizes for feeling natural human sadness over death would struggle with how to deal with all of the losses we are experiencing now.
Remember, none of us have ever been through a time quite like this before. The longer this goes on, more losses will mount. In a society where individuals struggle to be with feelings around loss, many of us are carrying a cauldron of emotion right under the surface that could bubble up at any time - perhaps even triggered by something that has nothing to do with what we are carrying on the inside.
Whatever losses you have experienced, you need not dismiss your grief just because it seems not as painful as someone else’s grief. Comparing your losses does not help you deal with your own feelings. Delegitimizing your feelings does nothing to help you move through your experience with grace. In fact, by negating our feelings we are not open to the ways in which grace can heal us. Francis Weller writes, “This is our predicament: We are forever feeling pressed by our society to meet its demands while the yearnings of the soul, especially in times of great grief, go unmet.”
Could it be that in this sea of grief, we are being called to a re-awakening of our souls? To navigate these intense days, many of our usual escapes are not fully available; and they only provided temporary comfort. The turbulent waves of this pandemic storm will not be navigated well by our default approaches.
The intensity of our collective grief is an invitation to deeper spiritual living. To ride the waves of grief towards a safe shore, we might take seriously what the sages of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions demonstrate. There is a reason that Jesus went by himself to pray; a reason that Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree; a reason that Moses went to the top of the mountain alone. Being quiet with the Holy can give us the space we need to feel the consolation of sacred presence, a place where tears can flow, and our deepest wisdom arises.
To heal, rather than dismiss our losses, we must name them. Writing in a journal; talking to a friend, counselor, or spiritual leader who can listen deeply without judgment; or pouring your heart out in prayer can help loosen the fortress we often build around our feelings and hear the still, small voice within.
None of us know how long this time of physical distancing will last. But, for every day that all of this goes on, we can expect that there will be more loss.
Holding onto our grief, we isolate ourselves even more from others, from the Holy, and from our own souls. Our broken hearts have the potential to open us to connect in an authentic way with others acquainted with pain. These days, that’s all of us. Sharing our grief can be a sacred journey with others, enabling us to awaken our hearts, to become more sensitive and kind, and to find the One who is no stranger to brokenness. Embracing the path of grief might even allow us to come through this pandemic as a more compassionate and just society - something else we’ve learned since March that is desperately needed.
The Rev. Sue Koehler-Arsenault is pastor of the Annisquam Village Church in Gloucester.