Grief, Tombs, and New Life in COVID-19 Times

Mar 27, 2020

As I was reflecting on the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, I was struck that despite the happy ending, there was a lot of grief in the early part of the account. Mary and Martha grieved over the illness of Lazarus and sent word to Jesus. After Lazarus’ death, Martha’s grief came out as anger at Jesus for coming too late. And even Jesus wept in grief for Lazarus, despite knowing the outcome. Even when we know all is not ended and life will go on, there is grief. It’s the same with us now. Some of the Presbytery’s ministers met virtually the other day — a screen full of faces in a scene becoming more common everywhere. We talked about the adjustments we’re making in this harrowing time of a pandemic. How can we help people? In particular, how can we do pastoral care when the old model of pastoral physical presence is prohibited? We also talked about how we were feeling. One colleague mentioned that what she felt was grief. Heads nodded in all the panes. We’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air. Sometimes we try not to feel what we’re feeling because we have this image of a “gang of feelings.” If I feel sad and let that in, it’ll never go away. The gang of bad feelings will overrun me. The truth is a feeling moves through us. We feel it and it goes and then we go to the next feeling. There’s no gang out to get us. It’s absurd to think we shouldn’t feel grief right now. Let yourself feel the grief and keep going. If we can name it, perhaps we can manage it. Mary and Martha grieved before Lazarus’ death, fearing what was to come. In the Lazarus account, the disciples weren’t sure why they should go after Lazarus died. They also knew opposition was growing against Jesus. Thomas said, “We might as well go and die with Jesus.” We join them in feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our instinctive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively, as a people, lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually, or as ethnic groups, or as lower economic levels, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We can hope and pray that the Lord intervenes, as Mary and Martha hoped. Trust that God will, in ways directly and in ways through the inspired efforts of people doing their part. There is also something we can do. Anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst. To calm yourself, you want to come into the present. You can name five things in the room. There’s a computer, a chair, a picture of the dog, an old rug, and a coffee mug. It’s that simple. Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. In this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick. Use your senses and think about what they feel. The desk is hard. The blanket is soft. I can feel the breath coming into my nose. This really will work to dampen some of that grief. You can also think about how to let go of what you can’t control. What your neighbor is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is staying six feet away from them and washing your hands. Focus on that. Finally, it’s a good time to stock up on compassion. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways. I’m seeing some people’s fear and anxiety. So be patient. Think about who someone usually is and not who they seem to be in this moment. Even now people are realizing they can connect through technology. They are not as remote as they thought. They are realizing they can use their phones for long conversations. They’re appreciating walks. Find ways to help from contacting others, to supporting relief work as you can and by praying. One particularly troubling aspect of this pandemic is the open-endedness of it. We aren’t sure when it will end. But we can trust that this is a temporary state. It helps to say it. The precautions we’re taking are the right ones. History tells us that. This is survivable. We will survive. This is a time to overprotect but not overreact. Keep trying. There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. We’re a culture that has feelings about our feelings. We tell ourselves things like, I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other people have it worse. We can — we should — stop at the first feeling. I feel sad. Let me go for five minutes to feel sad. Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims. Take a message from the count of Lazarus’ resurrection. Don’t be like Mary and Martha and Thomas. Don’t assume you already know how the story goes. Be surprised by Jesus. Surprised by emptying tombs, surprised by the thing you never gave yourself a chance to see coming. Surprised by how you can have something taken from you which you thought you couldn’t live without and then finding yourself living anyway. Surprised at how people or lifestyles will return, with a greater sense of meaning after this. Surprised, as we say, at emptying tombs of grief and the restoration of lives close to what we used to know. I believe we will find meaning in it. I do believe we find light in those times. I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over. This is how the God of resurrection is wanting to be known all around us. It’s happening everywhere, faith just lets us recognize the surprise of Jesus is yet doing. Thanks be to God. Amen. Rev. Bill Schram began his ministry with Westminster in March 2018 and is the current Interim Minister. Bill attended McCormick seminary in Chicago and met his wife Jenny there. They have served as co-pastors and in separate positions. He has served churches in urban, near suburb, small town, county seat towns in various positions such as pastor, associate pastor, interim pastor, and hospital chaplain. He and Jenny have two natural and one foster daughter. Delightfully, they now have a granddaughter to enjoy.

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