Maggi Van DornJuly 01, 2021
Volkan Olmez/Unsplash

Have you given yourself permission to grieve all that has happened this past year—all that is still happening? Even if we can all acknowledge that it is O.K. to cry, can you remember the last time you wept openly?

As of this morning, 3,965,559 people around the world have died of Covid-19. Within each of these deaths is a world of grief.

And then there are the losses that go beyond numbers: Grandparents could not hug their grandchildren; women delivered their babies alone; children were unable to play with friends or tap their teachers on the shoulder; family businesses were forced to shut down after decades of operation; the brutal deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor; and even the chance to grieve was lost when we could no longer gather to bury our dead.

And while the United States and other developed countries rejoice in successful vaccine rollouts, the pain of death and loss persists for millions of people worldwide where the virus is still raging and resources are scarce.

Have you given yourself permission to grieve all that has happened this past year—all that is still happening?

But what about the losses we have not counted in the news, the pain that can’t be tracked by meters and tolls, the personal grief we experience in our lifetime?

Grief has visited me several times this past year. Put neatly, I lost a relationship, a home, a dog and my grandfather. All in the span of two months. Some may call this a country song. The official term, I believe, is “cumulative grief.” It did not unfold neatly or in any predictable way as the Kubler-Ross “stages of grief” might suggest.

So what happens when a power like grief is denied or delayed or overlooked?

That is the question I set out to answer as I began reporting this latest episode of “Church Meets World.”

If you haven’t started listening yet, here are a few more stories from the episode to convince you.

The spiritual practice of weeping

“So often if we don’t weep, we don’t grieve well,” the Rev. Ben Perry, my friend, told me. Ben pointed out that tears are not only a side-effect of grief but that very often they are a portal that leads us deeper into the process of grief.

When Ben was in seminary, preparing to become a Presbyterian minister, one of his professors asked the class to think about the last time they cried. “I haven’t cried in years,” he thought to himself. “It’s left me really, really divorced from my own internal emotional states.” It was this separation that brought him to adopt a new spiritual practice. “I just made the decision that I was going to make myself cry,” he said. And so he did—every day.

“What I found was that after even just a few weeks, I had in some substantial way recalibrated my emotional state so that I could watch something that was a little bit less horrifyingly traumatic, and I would start to cry.”

There’s a long biblical tradition of lamentations. The prophet Jeremiah has been dubbed “the weeping prophet” because of the tears he shed for the sinful nation of Judah:

O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!

Ben reminded me that Joseph—of the famed technicolor dream coat—was also a big-time crier. But to get a better sense of why this is so important you’ll need to listen to the full episode.

Tears are not only a side-effect of grief but very often they are a portal that leads us deeper into the process of grief.

You feel the pain in your whole body

Grief is a wild thing, conceived where our deepest longings encounter the ugly, short and brutish nature of life. And we can probably all agree, and recognize in our own experience, that there are capricious moods to grieving—denial, anger, sadness, bargaining—but that they don’t visit us in any predictable order. Nor do they reveal the length of their stay. They simply besiege us—body and soul.

A young boy waering a mask hugs a labrador puppy, while his owner crouches on the floor next to them.
Maggi with her quarantine family: Claire, Hawk and ZuZu

“When you’re in grief you live in your heart; you don’t live in your head as much because you feel the pain in your whole body,” Richard Leonard, S.J., an Australian priest and the author of Where the Hell is God?,told me.

“There is a reason for everything” or “God only gives you as much as you can handle” are religious platitudes that do more harm than good, Father Leonard said. Worse still, he adds, is that old faithful response of Catholics the world over: “Maybe this is just your cross to bear.”

These only complicate our suffering and are often spoken in an attempt to quiet our tears and hush the harsh reality of pain and death. They make the consoler feel better but leave the griever all the lonelier.

“When you’re in grief you live in your heart; you don’t live in your head as much because you feel the pain in your whole body.”

“How’s your heart today?”

Grief is an intensely personal experience, but it shouldn’t be a private one. What we need is accompaniment.

We need someone to pick up the phone, to drop a line or a handwritten note or to share a meal; anything that says: I’m here. I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I know it must be so hard. Or as my good friend, Sarah, will often ask me: “How’s your heart today?”

We neglect to do this for many reasons. Perhaps we can’t find the right words to say. Or maybe we fear that in bringing up the subject, we’re only reminding the person of their grief and, in some way, forcing them to relive it. When, in reality, the people and things we have lost are constantly on our minds. Allowing someone to name that loss can be part of their healing.

“I found that if somebody tells you about something hard in their life, to me, that’s sort of a sign that they trusted me enough with that info,” Britt Luby, who has twice written about grief for America this past year, told me. “I need to love them enough to ask about it.”

Grief is an intensely personal experience, but it shouldn’t be a private one.

Enduring love

The right words are never at hand. But one phrase that has really struck a chord with me and helped me call my grief by the right name is: You don’t grieve what you don’t love.

Father Leonard reminded me of this when he shared that Queen Elizabeth II had written this phrase in a note of condolence to the people of the United States after the devastating attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

And so to endure grief is really to endure love. I suspect many of us barely ever allow our grief to be seen. But just because there are no tears, does not mean that grief is dormant. The emotional system, as Ben said, sometimes needs recalibrating.

So to hell with arbitrary timelines and orderly stages. Let us relieve ourselves of the burden of trying to get back to normal or to some mythical state of happiness.

What if instead of resenting grief, we welcomed its arrival as a sign that we have really loved?

You don’t grieve what you don’t love.

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