They call it anticipatory grief. The kind of melancholy that accompanies impending loss, though clinically, the phrase is usually reserved for instances of anticipating the death of a loved one. Or maybe it’s disenfranchised grief - a series of responses to a physical or abstract loss that doesn’t have an acknowledged place in society, a void often deeper than death but without a meal train of casseroles or paid bereavement leave from your job.
There are no rituals, traditions, or institutions in place for this kind of thing. There is no handbook for this, no seminary class or manual. We truly are in reaction mode. Like the early church, we can’t look to those who have already navigated these waters for an example. No one can dispute that we are making it up as we go.
I know we don’t want to admit that. As a hospital chaplain, knowing my unique role in a crisis both an art and a science. When we are presented with an emergency or a code, everyone on staff is empowered with the duty to do their part based on their training and experience. And as scary as holding someone’s hand as they take their last breath sounds, or as devastating as telling a husband that his wife has died may feel, I have never felt inadequate. Not because of what I can do, but because of with whom I do it, even if they aren’t in the room with me.
Which is why this is unlike any triage experience you or I have managed before. Unlike a clinical environment, where one person is clearly the patient and the others are clearly the caregivers, we all find ourselves simultaneously playing the role of physician and patient. There is no specific recipient, there is no immune population or person. We can’t just clock out at the end of the day and leave our worries with the next shift - we are the next shift. And the shift after that, too.
Being quarantined in our homes, however, is not synonymous with being quarantined in our grief. One of the cruelest ironies of this pandemic is the fact that we are discouraged from being together - just when we need it most. In times of crisis, it is our human nature to lament and gather together in support and solidarity. Many of us have had to make the hard decision to call off gathering in person; others have had that decision made for them. As I concluded the Words of Institution during worship on Sunday, I felt led to use the set table as the symbol of our anticipated disenfranchisement. Inviting the congregation to be seated, I explained that this was the part where we share this table of God’s grace through bread and wine, fellowship and community. But not today. We shouldn’t today. How odd to even say that.
I reminded these disciples that I wonder if this is what Jesus’ disciples felt like after his resurrection as they quarantined themselves in the upper room, frozen in fear yet finding strength in each other’s presence. Or perhaps it’s when voyagers sitting next to us in our pews are treated more like viruses because they are too black, too gay, too radical, too bruised, too different. What must it feel like to be so close to God’s presence that you can nearly touch it, but so far away due to “social distancing?”
I ended the service announcing that gatherings within the church are temporarily canceled. Church, however, is not. We will adapt and find new ways to be the people of God - through intentionality, through prayer, through the Internet. We will trust with confidence that God can, will, and does meet us where we are. We will support each other and continue to figure this out along the way together, just not while together.
I invited the disciples before me to use this
opportunity to sit in this disenfranchisement a little longer than feels familiar and think about the countless people who have also been turned away - in our own lives, at our table, by society, through our “-isms.” May we examine how our own judgments, assumptions, reactions, and dismissals have separated others and ourselves from God’s grace. May we look at God’s presence at the table not as something to be earned, but as something to be shared. And may we keep in mind those whom we’ve made distant through our sin as we lament the anticipated grief that has yet to fully sink in: the missed appointments, the disappeared graduations, the unfinished projects, the canceled flights, the displaced students, the ways this pandemic will narrate the story of our lifetime and thereafter.
So take care of yourself. Give yourself grace. Too often those of us who are by nature caregivers are so busy helping others put on their own oxygen masks and completely forget that we need oxygen, too. It’s OK to feel emotional - or to not feel emotional at all. It’s OK to grieve little losses without comparing them to others’ big losses. It’s OK to want to seclude yourself, to simply stay in bed, or to not see the silver lining amidst these grey, grey clouds. It’s OK to feel guilty for releasing responsibilities that used to bring you joy or to wonder where God is in all of this. The early disciples wondered that, too. And yet - God still showed up. God’s never let a locked door stop the Spirit before - how simple of us to think that she can’t join us in our quarantine again.