Recently, I found myself doing something unfamiliar, and unexpected: pressing “publish” on a Facebook post that felt a bit too keenly like a sermon.
Yet, as new prescriptions and restrictions keep getting broadcast by our public health officials, with regard to how we move through this new world with COVID-19 most prudently, I have been feeling more and more aware of a crucial fact about the moment we are navigating culturally.
All of us, to some degree, are in grief (and will be).
In her influential study, “Death and Dying” (1969), psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief: Denial (avoidance, confusion, elation, shock, fear), Anger (frustration, irritation, anxiety), Depression (overwhelm, helplessness, hostility, flight), Bargaining (struggling to find meaning, reaching out to others, telling one’s story), Acceptance (exploring options, new plan in place, moving on).
We experience grief not just when we lose someone (or some thing, job, place, or community) we love, but also when we experience the loss of what we considered (and valued as) “normal.” We are experiencing such loss now — individually, in differing intensities; and collectively, culturally, even globally.
As a new priest, I heard a presentation by a futurist that described the “VUCA” world we would be entering: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. This matrix of qualities seems accurate to me in describing not just the landscape of our cultural moment, but our internal one, as well.
The stages of the grief cycle do not proceed logically, along the lines of Kübler-Ross tidy taxonomy, but spiral unpredictably; and as we continue navigating this ever-evolving "new normal," which seems to shape-shift beneath our feet each time we take a step, we are going to keep bumping up against one another in different stages of our rinse-cycling grief (anger, meet denial, meet depression, etc.)
In my own grief (my mother, whom I loved deeply, and felt a connection with so real and true I still cannot find words for it, died seven years ago last Sunday), what has helped me most is not just self-care (doing something each day to tend to my own health: heart, mind, spirit and body), but more crucially, turning outward. Applying our energy and efforts toward some greater purpose is what heals grief, what salves and saves us (the words salve and salvation both come from the Latin word salvus, which means, “health”). We relinquish our claim, as David Foster Wallace put it, upon “the freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms,” and find purpose and meaning through the contribution we make to another’s life.
So, if we are grieving, can we apply this treatment: find some way to get our focus, more and more, day by day, off ourselves and onto the needs of others? In particular, can we find some way to do something for someone who is affected by, or scared of, or treating, or working to contain, this virus? Someone who may not have the option (privilege) of working from home?
Can we call or write someone for whom self-quarantine may threaten to lead to loneliness?
Can we direct thoughts of grace toward those making decisions on behalf of others?
Can we lift the lives of those putting their health at risk to serve the greater populace in prayer?
Can our mutual practice of social distancing actually create communion through the words and acts of love we offer one another, despite our grief?
I believe, and I hope so.
Travis Helms is an Episcopal priest serving the University of Texas campus, and curator of LOGOS Poetry Collective — a liturgically-inflected reading series and community that gathers monthly at Lazarus Brewing Co. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.