“I once read the sentence ‘I lay awake all night with a toothache, thinking about the toothache an about lying awake.’ That’s true to life. Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
What a week. What a month. I am certain we are all still sitting at our kitchen tables marveling at the speed with which the modern world came to a crashing halt.
For us, this ‘near apocalypse’ meant another unsettling transition. We were living in college accommodation in Cambridge, U.K. when Covid19 disrupted our quiet lives. It was unfortunate timing. We had just seemed to settle into a gentle routine. I had a part time job; Jeremiah was enjoying his research. We had started running together in the mornings. Friday evenings had become regular pub nights with our friends. Life was more settled than it had been in a while, more settled than it will be for a while.
This global pandemic has upset nearly all of our lives. We can all share a story of cancelled plans, work uncertainty, or altered lifestyles. Jeremiah and I are no different. Last Friday we were strongly advised to leave our college accommodation as the university was essentially closing. All international students were told to quickly return home, if they could. In a matter of hours Jeremiah had to decide whether we would pack up and fly to the States or pack up and head to my parents’ home in Scotland. Either way, we had to pack all our belongings and leave our flat. We had to say an abrupt goodbye to our home, to our friends, to our barely established life.
We chose Scotland. Our unbelievably kind brother-in-law drove down, helped us box up our stuff, crammed it into a rental car and brought us up here to Crieff. We hurriedly unpacked in my parents’ flat. Childhood photos peered oddly at me as I haphazardly swung suitcases onto the floor. My twenty-five-year-old self stared back, feeling just as powerless, just as unprepared as the one year old looking at me.
My parents are in the United States. It’s odd to be in their home with no intention of seeing them. It’s sad to be somewhere I attribute to being with family yet we are alone. Even though my mum said I could use her stash of Nestle chocolate chips to make pancakes (which, anyone who has parents living overseas knows this is a huge honour) there is still an emptiness to living in your parents’ home without them.
It’s not only sad for me to be here without my mum and dad, it’s difficult not knowing when we will see them again. It’s difficult to process another transition, another forced move, another sudden goodbye.
While I have moved enough times to win an Olympic medal in ‘packing while crying’ it does not become easier. Actually, I think for those who have moved a lot, each time is more challenging. The change causes the lumped-up pain of previous moves to resurface. All the stuffed away emotions of hopelessness, sorrow, anger, guilt have not disappeared, they have just been hiding in that one rarely used footlocker with your mismatched shoes and old boleros.
It was not a surprise to me that, as I yanked all my clothes out of the closet, thoughts of boarding school rose in my head. Suddenly, I desperately missed my dorm sisters, packing together, returning borrowed clothes. I missed returning home, to my mum who had been saving Nestle chocolate chips for three months to make pancakes for me. I missed unpacking in university, in a quiet, cream coloured square with a flowered duvet. I remembered leaving Tennessee, saying goodbye to my best friend at one in the morning after an evening of wine and avoiding the inevitable. It may seem trivial to you, impossible, or even silly for all of those memories to overcome me while I was folding summer dresses in Cambridge.
That’s fine. Maybe you have never moved.
Commiserating a life lost is difficult. It’s almost impossible to digest an unfinished farewell – a farewell to a home, to a city, to a season of life, to friends, to familiarity, to a world that was not collapsing with panic. Mourning a life destabilized is just painful. And this world has been nothing if not destabilized. This is miserable. So, are we allowed to mourn.
Or are we afraid to?
It is quite obvious that this Western world does not know how to process grief. We, Christians who should be so familiar with the brokenness of this world, are averse to even mentioning it out loud.
I did not grow up in a Western church, I grew up attending a sweltering church in Luanda, Angola. The Angolan response to loss is nearly the opposite of the Western church’s response. When there was a funeral or a marked loss in our congregation, it was preceded and followed by a time called an óbito. An óbito consisted of several days spent at the family’s house – singing hymns, praying, weeping, wailing, eating, sharing stories, lamenting. It was, clearly, grieving – several days of it.
There was no pat on the back at the door of the memorial service. There was no “Well, the Lord is good, and you’ll get through this.” Instead, there was space and time committed to mourning. Cultures that embrace loss and allow themselves to process it fully seem to be spiritually healthier. Instead of jumping back into a rat race of mindless productivity they grant themselves the freedom to experience a dark and indubitable piece of humanity.
It seems we are more concerned that our Wednesday night budget meetings have been placed on hold instead of the visceral loss our communities are feeling at this time. Why are we so afraid to recognize pain? Why are we preoccupied with learning how to work multiple facets of the virtual world so we can reconnect with our busy lives instead of giving ourselves a few days to cry, to be upset, to lament?
We are so against the idea of presently experiencing grief in our modern, happiness centric world that an article had to circulate defining it for us: That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief. While is a really good read, it may be helpful for us to find much more material on grief because we, as a society, are not good at embracing affliction. We are impatient. We are demanding of success and productivity and value. Grief holds none of that. Grief promises you will experience deep, breaking pain, and it will remind you that you are a human in need of a great God.
Grief is not the absence of hope – it is the recognition of loss. Grief is not isolation from God, it is recognition of this broken world. And He is well aware of this earth’s brokenness.
I hope we use this time to learn how to grieve well. I hope we learn how to mourn fully, for ourselves and for others. Mourn for those who have had to cancel family holidays. Mourn for those who have had to move. Mourn for those who have lost jobs. Mourn for those who are experiencing financial tension. Mourn for the relationships that will dissolve – either due to distance or too much time together. Mourn for those who were days away from graduating, from being promoted, from their wedding. Mourn for new mothers who will not have their family nearby. Mourn for every previous move, every uncertain change, every moment of loss before this. Mourn for those who truly have no home to hide away in.
I hope this season teaches us compassion. I hope it unveils the brokenness of the world to us and teaches us to pray fervently. Pray that we may learn to be patient with one another’s pain. Pray that we may only grow in mercy and grace. Pray that we will yearn to be more loving – to our neighbors and to our enemies. Pray that we will be inundated with grace, that we will know what it is to lose a little and learn to empathize with those who have lost much.
We are all unsettled. We have had to say goodbyes. We have been uprooted. We are living day to day with uncertainty. These circumstances are unprecedented. We, collectively, have experienced a tragic loss of normalcy. Tomorrow may be the time to rejoice, but let today be the time to mourn.
Perhaps you will find this piece as useful as I did in learning how to grieve well – Dare to Hope in God – How to Lament Well. I do not want to encourage anyone to embrace resentment or anger. I do desire that we remain authentic in our expression as we live in this sorrowful world. I hope we learn to experience grief with the same faith we experience joy. I hope we learn to cry out to the Lord in anguish with our hope unshaken.
Our sorrow, our loss, our wounds are apparent to Him. Our attempts to veil our pain with chants of “it could be worse” or “look at the bright side” are meagre attempts to cheat God out of His promises – promises to comfort the broken hearted and the down-trodden. Promises to bring relief to the worn out, to bring rest to the weary. If you serve a god who does not believe in grief then you do not serve the God of the Psalmist. If you serve a god who cannot grieve you do not serve Christ. If you serve a god who cannot handle your grief, if you serve a god to whom you cannot bring your tear stained, sleepless nights and ask Him for comfort, then you serve a much smaller god than I do.
The Lord I serve, whole heartedly and unabashedly, knows this world is filled to the brim with terror and heartbreak. Thank goodness.
Thank goodness there is a God who knows the deep pains we are all experiencing at this time. There is a God who knows about each canceled plan, each lost job, each broken relationship, each life put on hold. There is a God who knows – there is a God who mourns. There is a God who promises relief and comfort. There is God who created us in His image – mere humans who breathe, rejoice, praise, wail, and grieve.
So, let us mourn. It’s okay. It’s really alright. My mum said we can. In fact, she said we should.