Isaiah 61:3: to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
In April of 2007, I was in seminary in Atlanta. My sister was a student at Virginia Tech, but she was studying abroad in Ecuador. We grew up in Hokie country. Our grandfather went to Tech. Our dad went to Tech. We were raised on weekend trips to Lane Stadium and winter drives to Cassell Coliseum. I didn’t go to VT, but I was a Hokie, anyway.
When Seung-Hui Cho, shot and killed 32 people before shooting and killing himself on the VT campus, my sister and I were both far from home. That sucked, a lot. Everyone at home was grieving, together. She was especially far away. She decided that she would end her time in Ecuador short so that she didn’t miss the communal grieving. She didn’t know what it would be like to come home, months later, and have to do the work of jetlag, culture shock and grief on her own.
I went home, too. How could I not? A month or so later, when my entire family converged on Atlanta for my graduation, they all wore matching t-shirts commemorating the loss. When I showed up at their hotel room, they handed me a package with my own shirt in it. I put it on. How could I not?
Communal grief is a slippery, complicated thing. Everyone grieves differently. I remember when a long-time pastor left the church I was working in. The staff tried to slow everything down, to accommodate for the grief that was squirting out of everyone in different ways. Some people withdrew, others were all of a sudden in our offices weekly if not daily. A beloved older woman – who was especially connected to the former pastor and his family – showed up in my office one day. I was trying, again, to explain the slow-down and the need to make room for grief and sadness. She lost it: “If I hear ONE MORE WORD about GRIEF, I am going to tear my hair out!”
Everybody deals with grief differently, but we all have to deal with it. If we don’t, it marinates inside of us, hardens into cruelty or molders into depression. Grief is meant to be FELT, and it will badger you in one way or another until you consent to feeling it. Communal grief – when all of us are losing something, together – is especially tricky because some people feel grief in one way and other people feel it in diametrically opposed ways, and some people are standing by refusing to feel it in any way and managing to stifle and stymie the rest of us with their own internal roadblocks.
I am curious and wary of how – or if – we will grieve the tragedies that have made up 2020. We have lost so much, beginning with precious, beloved people. But grief isn’t relegated to the death of persons. We grieve over lost opportunities, lost traditions, lost hopes, lost plans, lost relationships, lost progress. We grieve all kinds of losses and in 2020, the mountain of loss is tall and steep.
What do we need to do to feel the grief that is banging on our hearts’ doors? Will we even be able to feel it while we’re stuck alone, in our own homes, separated from one another and the invitations to be sad, together? Would it help if we all got t-shirts and wore them, in grieving solidarity, on the same day?
There are actual practices grounded in ancient wisdom for how to grieve. Spiritual traditions know what they are: set aside time. gather. lament. remember. bless. eat. 2020 has been particularly hard because we can’t gather. This interrupts the tried and true wisdom of how grief goes.
Back in the spring, when clergy were trying to get our heads around how to minister in these times, I decided that if there were a death in my congregation I could not stay away. I couldn’t imagine leaving beloved folks to grieve alone. People have died – too many – and while I have not stayed away, exactly, I have not gone to sit shiva or make the pastoral visits I would have otherwise. Instead, I have texted prayers, listened to grief over phone lines, dropped off soup on porches. I’m telling you: it sucks.
And I can also feel the wisdom of the ages seeping in around the edges. What do we do in grief? We slow down. We take time to feel our feelings. We yell and scream and mourn and keen. We tell stories. We name what has been lost. We bless life and memory and eternal possibilities. We eat.
I hope that those of us who carry the wisdom of these spiritual practices can make our voices known in the coming months. I hope that we can create and curate spaces where grief is welcome, where lament is part of life, where we can gather – in whatever way possible – to remember and tell stories of what might have been and say, out loud, what we’ve lost this year. I hope we can do this in ways that are invitational and sacred.
Today is the 3rd Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of JOY. Everybody knows that when you work hard at numbing one emotion – maybe, for us right now, the overpowering grief of this year – you end up muting ALL emotion. We cannot experience JOY unless we are willing to feel our grief, too.
So, here’s your tiny pastoral invitation: light a candle, get out your journal, go for a run, put on a sad Christmas music playlist, bake that old family treat, get out the photo album of Christmases past, or just sit on your couch and stare at the lights on the tree and let yourself GRIEVE. I promise – really, it’s in the Bible – that it will be better that way.
And: Christmas is coming. The Christ-child is about to be born again. And when that kid grew up enough to pick up heavy scrolls and read sacred texts, this is the one he chose, leaving us all to assume that HE is the one who will provide for those who mourn…give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
Weeping may last for the night, but JOY comes in the morning. (Psalm 30)