Thistlethwaite: Acknowledge the grief and loss
A friend just did their first Zoom funeral. I hope it helped the bereaved, but after 40 years in the ministry, I can tell you that mourning needs the touch of arms around one another. Yet, in these days of a pandemic, we dare not have that. Where will that grief go, the grief that needs a human touch to fully heal?
Our nation is awash in death. More than 67,000 people so far have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. as of this writing (and the count is likely much higher). I don’t know about you, but I cannot open my email or Facebook or pick up the phone or read the Vail Daily and not hear of the deaths of colleagues, friends, their family members and their friends, and community members and so on. It is a ceaseless wave.
In just a few months, we have had more than 20 times the number of deaths the nation suffered on 9/11.
Why, then, are our nation’s flags not at half-mast? I believe this is because our president refuses to lead us in mourning. Instead, there is relentless “happy talk” surrounded by baseless, and sometimes dangerous speculation on cures and drugs.
No regret, no sorrow comes from this White House. And it will not come.
We are effectively on our own in mourning the loss of so many of our fellow citizens, just as America’s governors are on their own as they try to get personal protective equipment, coronavirus tests, stimulus help and the like from this non-governing White House. Don’t hold your breath. No help is coming from this White House.
It is therefore ever more important that we as Americans help one another out in the work of grieving. We must pay attention to the emotional toll this is taking.
And it is not only death that we have to grieve. The economic losses are catastrophic. Perhaps as many as 43% of Americans have lost jobs or wages due to the downturn caused by the pandemic. People are scared of the present and terrified about the future.
America’s future looks particularly grim, given the lack of national leadership by this president and his ever-revolving staff.
With all the premature “opening” of this country, we will surely suffer a “second wave” of the disease and be threatened with the kind of prolonged economic depression Americans suffered in the Great Depression. This is a source of great grief to me, and I am sure to you. You can even see it on the faces of those who dress themselves up with guns and protest the “stay-at-home” orders. They look not only angry but fearful to me, even as the protests are also tinged with white supremacist extremist politics.
When you pay attention to the fear and loss, however, these demonstrations are deeply tragic. The demonstrators’ big guns will not bring back their jobs, despite empty promises that America would be “great” again, at least if you were a white male. And if you use your imagination, you can see the virus spreading through these protests. They are only making their own situation, and others, worse. This is the very definition of Greek tragedy where the combination of overwhelming circumstances and as well as social and personal failings lead to catastrophic results.
The racist social failings of this country are enormous and centuries in the making. This has helped to make the pandemic far more lethal for African American communities. It has created a “perfect storm” of illness and death for African Americans, as an African American physician has written.
The grief and loss in these communities must not be individualized, it must be brought to the forefront of our struggle against this disease. For, as this physician writes, “African American outcomes are America’s outcomes.” The losses will continue to be catastrophic if we do not realize this.
As we listen to all the grief and loss, these kinds of specifics are important, and they must be acknowledged as such.
One thing we must not do is try to ignore all the specific grief and loss or hope it will go away. Unacknowledged grief takes a terrible toll on human beings.
I have learned a lot about grief from my colleague, Rev. Dr. Dow Edgerton, and his book, “Listening to Grief.” The book is accessible at no cost.
Dow writes: “Your grief is speaking and telling you something about you and the world in which you live. How can you listen?”
Listening to grief and acknowledging it is not easy. Humans express grief at the loss of other human beings in ways that can be so contradictory, muddled, and even sometimes ugly.
He continues, “Grief can express itself through thoughts and feelings that seem utter contradictions. Love that sounds like fear, pain that sounds like joy, doubt that sounds like faith, arguments that sound like prayers, prayers that sound like earthquakes, yes that sounds like no, and stories and dreams and dramas and songs and poems, and, and, and… In the face of this, a listener can simply be overwhelmed in the way that both a breaking wave and a slow surge can flood us out.”
In short, it is sad, difficult and even sometimes enraging to listen to grief. When I see a heavily armed protestor spitting his rage into the face of a guard at a state Capitol, I have to struggle to recognize at least some of that as grief. Grief as rage that threatens to give a deadly disease to a person who is only doing his job is particularly hard to sort out.
This is a snapshot of the ugliness of grief and the pain it can cause to others.
I hear “doubt that sounds like faith” expressed as “I know why God sent the coronavirus…” No. God does not send pandemics to punish or teach something to humanity. What the speaker likely meant is: “If God sent this pandemic, God can take it away. Please take it away.”
Even the relentless happy talk can be disguised fear. I suspect that for a self-described “germophobe,” a virus taking over the country has got to be terrifying.
I try to listen to the grief I hear all around me with return calls or emails or posts. People need to know they are not alone in their fear and loss. We have to try to express our own grief and loss clearly and compassionately, when we are able, and not as spitting rage or blind terror.
Listening to others’ grief and to your own is very difficult, and we do not get through with grieving by skipping over hard truths about the social structure of suffering for which there is never sufficient atonement.
Nevertheless, I find solace in my faith, and also in the words others have penned along the journey of life toward death. The poems of Mary Oliver on grief and loss have been particularly important in this time.
Here is one:
O, I go to see the great ships ride from harbor,
And my wounds leap with impatience; yet I turn back
To sort the weeping ruins of my house:
Here or nowhere I will make peace with the fact.
We grieve the “weeping ruins” in this life, or not at all, Mary Oliver says.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President Emerita and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.
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