As author Megan Devine puts it: “The way we deal with grief in our culture is broken.”
Many grew up conditioned to ignore even very deep griefs like the loss of one’s parent, so we learn to bury the very real feelings that need attention, on the hope that the feelings will go away with time.
The problem with that approach is that grief never really goes away until we deal with it. Grief is patient, but not kind. It will be there later, when things in your life become so out of kilter, you must deal with it. But it gets harder to process our grief when it has become ‘lacquered over’ with years or decades of living and can surface with a vengeance when later losses occur.
This day of the coronavirus spreading wildly in our world has created a situation we cannot ignore, and it is rife with losses which could trigger old griefs. Sheltering in place forces us to let go of habits which have helped us mask what we are truly feeling underneath by keeping busy. In addition, there are the real losses incurred as a result of fundamental changes in our ways of life.
On the surface are loss of contact with others, loss of the workplace as it was, loss of the freedom to go and do, among others. Deeper losses can occur, as well; loss of a livelihood and a way to make a living; fears for a loved one or self; postponement in tending to ‘elective’ medical problems; deaths occurring in the midst of this – COVID 19 related or not.
Each is compounded by the inability to be with those we love, especially if they are suffering. Zoom is good, but it’s not enough. Such losses increase overall anxiety levels, and when grief, fear, or despair are present as well, all these losses bear down with greater intensity.
So how do we care for ourselves while facing so many unknowns in the midst of a pandemic?
Most of us really like certainty, but unknowns about contracting the virus, treatment, duration of lockdown, and safe ways of reopening are a fact of life right now. It can feel like a very dark time. The best antidote I know is to face the realities we encounter, refuse to ‘borrow trouble’ in the form of worrying about what we cannot change, and let our feelings lead us deep into and then out of our hurt places.
Miriam Greenspan, in Healing through the Dark Emotions: the wisdom of grief, fear, and despair advises that we must face times of darkness in order to come through it whole and well. Greenspan teaches us to sit with grief, fear, or despair long enough to learn from them.
I have found her book a master class in how to practice this deceptively simple principle. We are to listen to and learn from what our bodies, minds and spirits tell us when we are in the throes of such strong emotions. When I take the time and find the courage to do so I find she is right. Such work has the power to heal and change the way we live our lives, even in the midst of the unknown.
Years ago, my sister said to me, “when our emotions are out of control, it clogs our connection to God.” I think that’s why what Greenspan says works. When we let go of our need to control and intentionally give time and attention to what is real in us, whether we like those feelings or not, we somehow are freed from their hold on us. Free to trust God to deal with the unknowns. And as a bonus, we find that hope drifts up and through us again, hope that was there all along, implanted by God deep within us but buried under the weight of what we were carrying.
As Emily Dickinson puts it: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”
Rev. Wendy Fenn
Co-Founder Faith & Grief Ministries