What's Tony Thinking

A Complex Grief


We’re doing a lot of grieving just now, aren’t we? In fact, grief in one form or another is a constant of this overall experience. It is a rolling reality, coming in new forms, spiking and subsiding in response to different experiences and events. As I mentioned in my devotion at the UCC site today, the Holy Week (next week is officially “Holy Week”) story gives us a God who goes through the grief, loss and death. No “by-passes” here.

I often think of Palm Sunday as Jesus’/ God’s decision to go through the heart of the city, not taking any freeway by pass around the complicated, the unsightly, the slow-downs and stop lights. He will descend into the depths. We, like his own disciples, insist there must be another and easier way, that “this shall not happen to you, Lord” (or to us!). There is, however, some good news in this. When we are in the depths, we are not finally alone. Jesus has been there. God is there.

So Palm Sunday and Holy Week come to say to us that there is no way around, only through, which includes the grief we now experience.

(Today’s photo shows the locked gates on the parking lots at Golden Gardens Park in Seattle.)

It may be timely to remind ourselves of the “five stages of grief” described a generation ago by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. This current article in Psychology Today does a good job of interpreting those stages for this time of COVID-19. As the author, Robert Weiss, notes and as Kubler-Ross concluded after developing her initial idea of stages, they are fluid. You don’t necessarily go through the five stages sequentially.

Weiss provides illustrations for what each stage of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, despair, acceptance) “sounds like” in this time. For example, here’s what “denial” sounds like now:

  • This whole thing is so overblown. What a media circus.
  • It’s the same as the flu. People get the flu every year and hardly anyone dies.
  • I’m not (old, immune-compromised, susceptible to lung ailments), so I’ll be fine

We’ve mostly moved beyond denial, apparently even President Trump has, in recent weeks. Here are Weiss’ examples for “bargaining.”

  • It’s OK to spend time with others as long as they wash their hands before they see me.
  • This will all be over by Easter. I’ll be safe until then, and then we can go back to normal.
  • I know when people look sick. I will be fine as long as I stay around people who are healthy.

So reminding ourselves of these common patterns may be helpful. You’re not weird or wrong if you’re feeling these emotions. Check out Weiss’s examples for the other “stages.”

Still, the grief is great and it is a complex grief. Unlike some instances of loss, a sudden death or even the 9/11 attack, there isn’t just one event, which breaks in upon us but can be located in space and time. This pandemic is continually unfolding over a long time in many different places. It is distant, then very near. It is, in many ways, invisible, then suddenly all too visible. Weiss says that one complicating element of this grief is “role-loss.” Roles that we had, pre-COVID, have been swept away.

You may be aware of the cryptic but cute description of the three phases of aging; “go-go,” “slow-go,” and “no go.” I feel like I went overnight from more or less “go-go” to “no-go.” And I did not pass “Go” or collect $200. More — because of all the emphasis on the elderly being “at risk,” I feel older in a way I hadn’t and frankly don’t much care for. Until now I had been able to deny that reality much easier. “Denial,” as a friend says, “works pretty well — until it doesn’t.”

This grief won’t end with Holy Week. But maybe this year Holy Week will remind us that grief itself is holy, made so by a God who does not exempt God’s own self from suffering and death, but who hallows it.



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