April 17, 2020

Losing the Familiar: Faith and Grief During COVID-19

By Rev. Hayden Butler
Painting by: Makoto Fujimura

"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear...There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty." -C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

“Still Point” by Makoto FujimuraWhen I was eighteen, my home life and family of origin underwent a sudden change from which it never recovered. I still remember the lurch of what I thought was permanent and untouchable suddenly shifting under my feet. Like Lewis, I felt afraid. I felt cut off, even when surrounded by people. I felt deaf to the words they were trying to say to make me feel better, and even when their words got through, part of me still wanted their kind words to just go away. Yet I was terrified of being alone. Starting to sound familiar?

Grief is one of those things we all feel but rarely talk about. It’ll help if we start with a few definitions. At the emotional level, grief really just means the conflicting feelings caused by a change or end in a pattern of behavior. It is how sane people respond to loss--the natural emotional reaction to a break in the familiar. We’re left with how to respond. Many of us have been taught from a young age to run, mask, or suppress grief. This leads us continually to a state of what’s called unresolved grief, which amounts to an ever-growing pile of undelivered messages in the heart. Some of us, though, have been fortunate enough to learn how to grieve. When we become skilled at grieving we move toward a place of emotional completion through which we learn to say goodbye to our unmet hopes, dreams, and expectations--all the things we wish were different, better, or more.

Grief produces all kinds of effects when left unresolved. It can make us less able to focus on tasks, less able to organize or schedule. Unresolved grief keeps us fixated on a past moment that does not change. It begins to absorb more of our focus. At the same time, unresolved grief transforms our sense of the future, too, turning it into a horizon of potential for the same loss to happen again. We begin to fear the future and fixate on the past. Left with less and less attention, then, is the present moment as we ping-pong back and forth from horrible past to (probably) horrible future. We start to feel less and less present where we are and in what we’re doing. Our lost sense of feeling responsive and attentive leaves us feeling inadequate and fearful, but ultimately numb. To borrow a phrase from our students, we begin to ghost the present moment.

Our present culture is particularly bad at grieving. Instead, it prefers either to pathologize grievers with clinical language, diagnosing them for having negative emotions, or to avoid grieving altogether by engaging in unhelpful myths about grief. How many of us have heard, after a loss, the phrase “time heals all wounds” or “just keep your mind off of it?” Usually, the people who say these things to grievers are just trying to help in the moment. Yet well-intentioned as they may be, these suggestions still perpetuate inaccurate messages about grieving. Here are a few of these grief myths: don’t feel bad, replace the loss, grieve alone, be strong for others, just give it time, keep busy, or blame someone else. Such responses engage in a quick-fix mentality for what is more of a prolonged, process-oriented emotional need. In short, these myths temporarily numb the pain of loss without working toward emotional completion.

Unfortunately, the Church is not immune to pushing these myths. In times of profound sorrow, we can be as swift to adopt the quick-fix as the rest of the world. This is unfortunate, considering how full the Scriptures are of faithful men and women who recognize the need to sit in a state of lament before God. The Psalm tradition, in particular, is full of these moments. Too often, though, rather than admitting our sorrow and perplexity, we rush to tidy up our understanding. We can baptize our misunderstanding of grief. In Christian terms, this can sound like “well, remember that God always has a plan” or “just keep praying and it’ll get better.” The difficulty here comes in that these suggestions have a degree of truth to them. God is indeed sovereign and calls us to prayer without ceasing. But as soon as these truths are marshalled to deny or suppress real features of our God-given humanity, we have misused them. This is too often the case with grief; we seek to smother emotional pain under a theological blanket. In the words of the Proverbs: “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart, is like one who takes off someone’s coat on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda” (Proverbs 25:20). 

Fortunately, there is a way forward in all of this. We have to acknowledge that there has been a loss. This is especially true if we’re trying to model good grief for our students. They look to us for guidance and signals as to when it’s time to do something, even if they sometimes delight in being contrary. If we don’t ever grieve well, they won’t know how to do it, either. And now is a time for grief, because now is a season of loss. For all of us, the familiar pattern of life has been disrupted, and has left us with a continual sense of what we wish was different, better, or more. We may not have had one of the concrete losses of life (loss of a family member, friendship, relationship, etc.), but we have all experienced changes that moved what we previously thought was firm and stable. Now is the time to take a look at how we handle loss; we’re all in a place of having to do that together. The more we give space for and a voice to our unexpressed emotional wishes and say a proper goodbye to them, the more intact our hearts and the more balanced our souls will be. The more we silence those words, refuse those goodbyes, and prefer instead myths and the quick-fix, the more we ensure our diminished ability to be present in our lives and in the lives of others at a time when meaningful relationships are more important than ever.

Beyond acknowledging the loss, however, grief recovery involves putting our present losses in context of our emotional history with other losses. We are people of pattern--our griefs, over time, become connected to one another. What we’re experiencing now is interwoven with the griefs of our past. Once we start to see that pattern, we begin to understand why we are feeling now the way we do. We begin to be able to identify and articulate where our disrupted sense of the familiar really hurts us. We are then able to vocalize a proper goodbye to the lost opportunity or expectation and move forward with our lives. We complete the grief in this way. If you’re looking for a helpful resource to begin this process, I recommend The Grief Recovery Handbook and its supplement When Children Grieve if you suspect your kids are having trouble with expressing their sense of loss. So too, I’m always happy to lend a listening ear to you if you need to talk through these things. 

Lastly, we do well to recognize in the richness of the Scriptures the presence of the true God who also grieves. As human beings, we are most joyful when we are most ourselves, and we are most ourselves when we are most like Him in whose likeness we are made. Perplexing times, while deeply distressing, can call us back to truths we’ve obscured or forgotten. These times have tested our many tendencies for dealing with life’s hardships and have shown many of them to be wanting. Yet now can be the favorable time to change. At the emotional level it begins with proper grief recovery--allowing the heart to say goodbye. As this recovery makes its way into the spiritual level, it frees us to say a more enthusiastic yes to what God wills to provide for us. When we practice saying farewell to our expectations for life, we are more open to receive from the hand of One who desires to give more than we imagine to ask of Him. We are able to say, like Mary of Nazareth, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word.” We are able to say, in the great prayer of Christ: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

Finally, a prayer for us all: O heavenly Father, you understand all your children; through your gift of faith we bring our perplexities to the light of your wisdom, and receive the blessed encouragement of your sympathy, and a clearer knowledge of your will. Glory to you for all your gracious gifts; in Jesus’ name: Amen.

If you are curious to learn more about grief and its place in the Christian life, please always feel free to reach out to Rev. Hayden Butler (hbutler@pacificaoc.org). 

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