These are troubled times. As of today, there have been 453,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Though that represents “only” 64 people per million worldwide, it would be hard to find anyone, anywhere, who does not feel that this outbreak has profoundly affected their way of life. Stores are closed, people are laid off, events are cancelled, and we are urged to stay home if at all possible. Though the current global death toll of 20,000 is still less than the average annual number of Americans who die from the flu, we daily watch that number climb as the news speaks of little else. Though, a month ago, news headlines were inundated with American politics and pipeline protests, today we watch helplessly as our way of life transforms before our eyes. To me, the sense of dread we feel bears a striking resemblance to feelings expressed by characters in Gone with the Wind – as they faced imminent defeat at the hands of union soldiers. Their way of life would never be the same. Yet, they did their best to live and love while the world around them fell apart.
Is that being a little melodramatic? Maybe. But, feelings are real, and should not be invalidated. They are part of a natural process of responding to the events of life. Recently, some have shared charts like this one, below, which explain the Process of Grieving based on the Kugler-Ross Model:
Applied to the current situation of widespread lockdown, these stages might look like this:
– Shock: Emotional shutdown/suppression
– Denial: Discrediting sources of information and refusing to change (flight)
– Anger: Feeling cornered, like there is no escape, lashing out and releasing bottled up emotion (flight)
– Bargaining: When change feels inevitable, trying to find a “middle ground” to still hang onto some things
– Depression: A sense of hopelessness and helplessness to stop change from happening
– Testing: Experimenting with new ways of life and new plans going forward
-Acceptance: Fully adjusting to the new reality, and learning to ruction again
Perhaps this can be illustrated most memorably with a scene from the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo expresses grief at the heavy task that lay before him. In response, the wise Gandalf guides him towards acceptance:
Gandalf adds an encouraging thought – that there are “other forces” at work in this world, and that what has happened to him was “meant” to be. Gandalf’s sense of a greater good, and a higher power gives Frodo encouragement that there can be meaning and purpose to everything in life, and that there is hope in a better future. Gandalf’s advice helps Frodo to move beyond feeling like a victim, to accept and embrace this unique opportunity to make a difference.
…to move beyond feeling like a victim, to accept and embrace this unique opportunity to make a difference.
In fact, his advice is not unlike Mordecai’s wise words to Esther, when he encourages her to take action in a time of trouble. Like Frodo, she needed to come out of hiding and recognize her opportunity to make a difference. Mordecai, like Gandalf, added meaning to her experience, and pointed to the greater purpose that she could serve.
Another interesting expression of this attitude comes in the form of Christian Spirituality. Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic writer, describes the “Paschal Mystery – A Cycle for Rebirth.” In light of Jesus’s comment in John 12:24 that a seed must die in order to multiply, Rolheiser proposes a model of following Jesus through death, resurrection, adjustment, ascension, and pentecost – for our personal spiritual transformation. That may sound a little strange, but considering Christ’s call in Luke 9:23-25 to carry our cross, follow Him, and give up our lives to gain new lives, Rolheiser doesn’t sound far off. Moreover, Paul’s description of baptism in Romans 6:3-7 sounds quite similar – of joining Jesus in death and finding new life.
In light of this, Rolheiser offers a 5-step model for spiritual transformation:
1.) Good Friday: “the loss of life – real death“
2.) Easter Sunday: “the reception of the new life“
3.) The Forty Days: “a time for readjustment to the new and grieving for the old“
4.) Ascension: “letting go of the old and letting it bless you, the refusal to cling“
5.) Pentecost: “the reception of new spirit for the new life that one is already living“
While this is not identical to Kuber-Ross’s 5 Stages of Grief, it shares the idea that grief is an opportunity for growth and newness, if it can be properly processed. For this to happen, one must acknowledge the death of the old, and welcome what is new.
…grief is an opportunity for growth and newness, if it can be properly processed.
However, if this process is not embraced, then we can get stuck in the past, and left behind. Jeremiah, the doomsday prophet of the last years of the kingdom of Judah, repeatedly warned his fellow countrymen of the approaching invasion – allowed by God to discipline His people, and turn them back to Him. Time and time again, he called his own people to surrender to their invaders, promising them that God had good plans for them in exile, and would one day restore them to their homeland (29:1-14). Yet, each successive king refused to give up what little control they had. They would rather stand against both God and the greatest empire on earth than relinquish their crumbling kingdom. They wanted to know the word of God from Jeremiah, but were unwilling to obey it; they were more fearful of change than of their impending doom (38:14-28). They refused to trust God and let Him use this crisis for good.
They refused to trust God and let Him use this crisis for good.
For our church, we have lost some things that are dear to us. Being a smaller size, we cherish the warm fellowship, and face to face contact of Sundays. Not that we’re an exclusive clique – we actually enjoy a beautiful diversity of culture, age, and background. And the wonderful opportunities for personal mentoring and practical service will be missed during this time of the virus. Just weeks ago, we were preparing a rotation of Sunday school teachers to lovingly teach our children; we were selecting new missionaries to support; we were approving our ministry budget for the coming year; we enjoyed a celebration meal with Daycare staff. My, how far we’ve come since then!
Yet, with loss, comes newness. We have embraced new technologies, like Zoom, which enable us to continue face-to-face interaction online. We’re learning to pick up the phone and call each other more, to check in and catch up. And we’re turning back to the Word for advice, and to God in prayer.
So, how might this time of crisis lead to positive change in your life? In this world?
What will come to an end?
What will take its place?
One change that has resulted from the crisis is that some people have gained a lot of free time.
Whether people are laid off or working from home, there are new spaces in our schedules.
With what will we fill them?
What new habits will emerge from this time?
How can we be intentional about the new lives we’re forming through this?
Others have experienced another change: more time at home with family. With schools closed and people working from home, new routines are required. Family members may have more time, but less personal space.
Will we learn to get along through this?
Will we grow through this to deepen our relationships, or will we “hold on until it’s all over?”
We need to develop a vision for life beyond the virus. If we do, then our actions can be informed by that, guided and empowered toward a new way forward. If we can move through the stages of grief, and accept the new reality, we can come to see this time as an opportunity to learn and grow in new ways.
Rather than “grinning and bearing it,” fighting against change, or hiding from it, we can welcome change, and approach each day with a desire to learn what we need to learn, and grow how we need to grow, in order to change how God calls us to change in these times.
…approach each day with a desire to learn what we need to learn, and grow how we need to grow, in order to change how God calls us to change in these times
Where do we go from here? How do we actually process grief in the midst of change?
What words can express what we’re feeling?
I’d encourage you to look to the Psalms, where David and other writers are doing just that – expressing their grief to God, and moving through it to a new reality, firmly footed on faith in God.
A psalm of David.
1 Lord, hear my prayer,
listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness
come to my relief.
2 Do not bring your servant into judgment,
for no one living is righteous before you.
3 The enemy pursues me,
he crushes me to the ground;
he makes me dwell in the darkness
like those long dead.
4 So my spirit grows faint within me;
my heart within me is dismayed.
5 I remember the days of long ago;
I meditate on all your works
and consider what your hands have done.
6 I spread out my hands to you;
I thirst for you like a parched land.
7 Answer me quickly, Lord;
my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me
or I will be like those who go down to the pit.
8 Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,
for I have put my trust in you.
Show me the way I should go,
for to you I entrust my life.
9 Rescue me from my enemies, Lord,
for I hide myself in you.
10 Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God;
may your good Spirit
lead me on level ground.
11 For your name’s sake, Lord, preserve my life;
in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble.
12 In your unfailing love, silence my enemies;
destroy all my foes,
for I am your servant.