03/22/20 Grief in the Oddest Places

Like most of you, I imagine, who happen upon this blog, I am sitting in my home “office” (the dining room table) contemplating a new normal. For context when we’re reading this later, our world is in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic caused by the novel Coronavirus. Schools have been and remain closed. Work places are mostly shut down. Churches have taken to Facebook to live stream worship. Several states have enacted “shelter-in-place” orders to limit citizens being out and about in order to reduce exposure and transmission of this highly contagious virus. Store shelves have been devoid of cleaning supplies, paper products, dairy, and other essentials for weeks. And the phrase I hear most often is, “this is just weird.”

It is weird.

In our country, we are mostly unaccustomed to what we’re experiencing. For those of us who have lived through natural disasters (hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, etc.), we know about the disruption of the supply chain that comes after the disaster. We don’t like it, but we understand it. And we look out for each other and we share of ourselves and of our stuff to help each other get through the tough times. The disaster is tangible. We see the devastation first hand. Everyone is in it together and has a similar experience.

For those who have lived through man-made disasters (chemical spills, plant explosions, etc.), we know about the need to shelter-in-place. We know how important it is for our own health to remain inside and not breathe in a known chemical or acrid smoke. The disaster is tangible. Everyone subject to the shelter-in-place order has a similar experience.

But this global pandemic doesn’t fit anything any of us have readily experienced. We can’t see it. We can’t smell it. We can’t look out our windows and see the devastation. Instead, we see line graphs of what could be based on data from the other side of the world. We encounter one person fully bedecked in gloves and face mask shopping alongside someone without such protection. And we wonder, “should I be in the gloves and face mask or should I not be worried?” We feel uncertain and ill at ease. And we see empty shelves caused by panic purchases which make us feel like we’ve done something wrong if we’ve not stockpiled those same products. And we hear news stories that guns and ammunition are selling out at all-time high rates. And we’re told we can’t eat in restaurants or congregate in groups or go to school or go to work or visit the elderly or touch people or touch our faces. It is weird. And it can be scary.

When I went through lay chaplain training, we spent quite a lot of time talking about grief. I learned that grief occurs when what we expected ceases to be. When we lose a loved one to death, our expectation of having a continued relationship with that person is suddenly interrupted. When we have a child who becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, our expected idea of that child’s life and actions ceases to be. When we receive a medical diagnosis that rattles us to the core, our expected health ceases to be. We experience grief events all the time, although we often don’t see them as such. A student receiving a bad grade on a test. A child losing her favorite stuffed animal. An athletic hopeful not making the team. A job interview not resulting in employment.

I believe that the “weirdness” we are feeling right now is grief. Grief on numerous levels. We’re grieving our lives as we knew them. Our creature comforts. Our well-stocked stores. Working alongside our colleagues. Worshiping in our churches. Visiting our elderly loved ones. Attending school and being with our friends. Date night in our favorite restaurant. Looking forward to prom and graduation. Performing in the recital we’ve prepared for. Competing in an athletic event. Being gainfully employed. Knowing we can pay our bills. Having a retirement nest egg. I could go on and on and on naming circumstance upon circumstance that is different right now and likely will be for the foreseeable future. But we don’t just grieve for our own change in expectations. We grieve for others. For small business owners who may not survive financially because of the pandemic. For our elderly neighbor who is too fearful to leave the house. For our children and grandchildren whose lives are so different. And some of us have first-hand knowledge of people who are suffering with COVID-19.

While it may seem odd to suffer grief because there’s no toilet paper on the shelves at the supermarket, it is important to understand the reason for our internal unrest, for our anxiety. Life is weird right now because we all are experiencing grief in nearly every aspect of our lives.

So, just as we treat a grieving young widow with empathy and concern, let us have empathy for all those we encounter, ourselves included. Let us recognize that people grieve in varied ways and respect that instead of judging it. And most of all, let us be gracious to others and ourselves.

Perhaps we really are all in this together and are sharing a similar experience.

Grace and peace to you as you journey.

Yours in Christ,