Six months ago, my unborn son died. He was 22 weeks old. My wife and I are still grieving him and, if we are honest, we will grieve him for the rest of our lives. I don’t mean, of course, that we will be sad every day for the rest of our lives. Many days have been wonderful and beautiful; many have not. What this does mean is that, over time, we will have learned to accept his death and even to find meaning in the pain we experience. It is a process.
I believe that what many are experiencing today, in the midst of this coronavirus crisis, is grief. There are the similar feelings of “losing control,” that there is some horrible event coming that I am powerless to stop. I’m not alone, either. This article, an interview of David Kesseler who co-wrote a book on the stages of grief with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, describes precisely how this pandemic has caused feelings of grief in so many people. There are many aspects of this crisis that may give rise to grief in many different forms, but the one most discussed by Kesseler is anticipatory grief. He says,
Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. … There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety.
One of the most challenging aspects about situations that give rise to grief is that they cut to the core of who we are, what we hold most dear, and our whole outlook and perspective on life. In their book, On Grief and Grieving, Kübler-Ross and Kessler wrote, “When a loss hits us, we have not only the particular loss to mourn but also the shattered beliefs and assumptions of what life should be.” Grief is a life-changing experience that is often forced on people, perhaps even in moments of sudden tragedy, as my son’s death was. No one wants to grieve, but in order to heal, we must. It is quite likely that we will become different people because of it. The authors continue,
Your belief system needs to heal and regroup as much as your soul does. You must start to rebuild a new belief system from the foundation up, one that has room for the realities of life and still offers safety and hope for a different life: a belief system that will ultimately have a beauty of its own to be discovered with life and loss.
What have we lost during this crisis? As Dr. Leonard DeLorenzo wrote for the Church Life Journal at the University of Notre Dame, this crisis has betrayed our sense of invulnerability and independence. It has revealed to us that “far more is contingent than certain.” It has shattered any illusion that “progress is inevitable and things will only get better.” Pope Francis said in his Urbi et Orbi address on Friday,
The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly “save” us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.
I am not pushing some nihilist, “life sucks, get over it” mantra. Rather, I am trying to say that this crisis is an opportunity to come to terms with reality and grieve, if anything, the human condition, that we are frail and helpless. The hope is that, as DeLorenzo suggests, our grief can give way to a more sure foundation upon which we can build our lives, one based on Truth. This is what Timothy O’Malley was advocating in his own beautiful entry for the Church Life Journal. He wrote, “The world itself, as well as our nation, is primed for a renewal of the virtue of solidarity, of the bonds of communion that define what it means to be a human being.”
An article by Gideon Lichfield for Technology Review helps to make clear that what some might believe is a temporary disruption to our way of life is actually a society-changing event with long-term consequences. He writes, “The world has changed many times, and it is changing again. All of us will have to adapt to a new way of living, working, and forging relationships.” Nothing will ever be the same. That does not mean that things will necessarily be worse, or that they will be better. It just means that the sense of “normalcy” we might try to hold on to protect our psyches is merely an illusion. What was normal is now a fantasy; this is the new normal.
Denial is a powerful way to avoid the pain that comes from grief, but also the growth. Denial may be necessary for a time, as a coping mechanism. It is a way for the mind to protect itself from intense trauma, so that the pain can be dealt with at another time. Kübler-Ross and Kessler write, “Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.” But denial is not a long-term solution, because to grieve is to heal. As Kübler-Ross and Kessler wrote, “When we do not work through our grief, we lose an opportunity to heal our soul, psyche, and heart.”
Surely, we have to respect where people are in this process of grief. It does no good to force people to confront a reality that they are unprepared to accept. But for those who are able to appreciate our new reality, it is time to realize that this is an opportunity to “rebuild.” As Pope Francis said in his address,
You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.
It bears stressing that we cannot reduce Christianity to a psychotherapeutic exercise. It is wrong to say that Christianity is good only because it makes us feel better. After all, following Christ entails much suffering, as Jesus himself warned in the Scriptures, but our faith opens up pathways to find meaning through our suffering and to even greater virtue. (For more on this, I recommend reading Salvifici Doloris, an Apostolic Letter written by St. John Paul II. Dawn Eden Goldstein is currently publishing videos reading and reflecting on the letter, which I highly recommend.) Christ cannot reduce our grief, nor should he lest he prevent our healing and growth, but he can transform our experience of grief, from sadness to “praise.” Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Spe Salvi,
Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.
Christ has redeemed us, from my grief over the loss of my son, from our collective grief during this pandemic. That much is certain. Through the mystery of the Body of Christ, we share in these sufferings together, and by being united to Christ’s suffering in his act of Redemption, help bring to completion the salvation of the world. As we take radical steps to protect each other and support each other through this crisis, may we grow in conviction that this orientation to the other is the most sure foundation upon which we can rebuild our society.