Last week, the Northern Texas–Northern Louisiana Synod and Briarwood Leadership Center hosted a national webinar on coaching in times of loss and grief. Our presenter, Dr. Don Eisenhauer, founded Coaching at the End of Life. He named that COVID-19 is causing all of us to experience not just a public health crisis, but a “pandemic of grief.” In that context, he warned us against cutting grief short. Loss and grief need to be named, worked with, lived with.
There are many reasons to cut grief short. We do not like to admit weakness and the feeling of being out of control. We are surrounded by people made uncomfortable by loss and grief, who would rather we put it away instead of working through a process.
Although religious systems are often at their best when staring death in the face, when they speak a word of hope and truth in a moment like this. But often, religious people are the absolute worst at accompanying people through the experience of death and other forms of loss.
Several years ago, Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff lost his son, Eric, in a mountain climbing accident. Part of his grieving process led to him producing a reflection on the experiences of Job, Lament for a Son. “Death is awful, demonic,” he writes. “If you think your task as a comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help.”
(See also this powerful additional reflection from Wolterstorff written thirty years after the book, containing important dual warnings against “disowning” one’s grief and “theologizing” grief.)
In stark contrast to this idea of sitting with people in their grief, we learned this week that the White House is disbanding its coronavirus task force, focusing instead on “reopening” the economy. The next day, we learned that the White House had rejected CDC guidance on maintaining safety for people throughout the United States.
Taken together, these are implicit declarations of victory over the coronavirus, even as the adversary rages in our midst, prowling around like a roaring lion “looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5.8).
A grief cut short leads to all manner of unresolved emotion and dysfunction. That happens when we don’t accept parts of ourselves and our experiences.
Americans can be forgiven if the present moment leaves them confused. Many of their political leaders are enacting policies directly opposed to public health guidance. Meanwhile, on the same day the US reported a (likely understated) unemployment rate of 14.7%, the highest percentage since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the stock market posted a rally.
If our political leaders continue to move quickly past this society-wide experience of trauma, loss, and grief—sacrificing lives in order to bolster phantasmic economic indicators—the second “Great Depression” this country will experience will not be economic alone.
The collective trauma and loss we are all experiencing in this COVID-19 crisis—what Don Eisenhauer is calling a “pandemic of grief”—risks being buried under hopes for stock market success and stories of heroism. In such a time, it is countercultural to say that our grief is something precious, diamonds to be protected.
We must stand up for one another, naming our losses and our grief—both direct and indirect. We must defend one another against the callousness of a system inclined to sacrifice communal wellbeing for the sake of stock portfolios. We must name and work to dismantle the inequities of race, gender, and class exposed by this crisis.
There is a name for that work. I have called it “Societal Chaplaincy.” But there is a related, shorter name: dissent and resistance.
The same system inflicting a new wave of genocide on the Navajo Nation and which offered lip service to the Black and Latinx experience of health disparity has allowed our vulnerable elderly and incarcerated men and women die without testing, often without even being counted as statistics. Workers in meat processing facilities are ordered by the President himself to accept their demonstrably unsafe working conditions.
The American experience of this pandemic has further exposed many of the fissures and fault lines in our society. In addition to our many losses, many of us have experienced a loss of innocence concerning fundamental inequities within “the American way of life” and our political leaders’ calculated privileging of economic indicators over human life.
It is becoming evident that using police to enforce social distancing directives results in the same racial disparities present in all other policing practices. The brazen murder of Ahmaud Arbery is a stark reminder that racism doesn’t take a break in the midst of a global pandemic.
These calculations depend on dehumanizing ideas long present in Anglo-American society. Charles Kingsley, author of the 1855 novel Westward Ho!, responded to those who critiqued imperial expansion and its “sacrifice of human life” by saying “Prove that it is human life. It is beast-life.” We hear echoes of this human/subhuman distinction when the Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court says that recent spikes in COVID-19 cases are among meat processing workers, not “the regular folks in Brown County.”
Care for our neighbor becomes real when we speak and act on behalf of our neighbors when they are threatened. As with wearing masks, care of the neighbor is about their wellbeing, not ours. The COVID-19 coronavirus crisis has demonstrated time and again that this call to care means speaking out not just against particular politicians but the death-dealing systems they (perhaps unwittingly) serve.
Minimizing or denying the structures and systems perpetuating racial and economic inequity denies the experience of grief for people and communities oppressed by those systems. These systems are awful and demonic. Again, Wolterstorff: “If you think your task … is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me … but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help.”
Communities of faith are called to be with people in their grief. We are also called to minimize harm, thus minimizing as much as possible experiences that cause loss and grief. To that end, communities of faith are called to name the losses—direct and indirect—in our midst and to accompany all who grieve.
As this marathon continues, that work requires that we act against unjust policies and systems that create more trauma while simultaneously insisting that trauma be ignored.
The Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD, directs Briarwood Leadership Center (Argyle, TX).