Good News in a Time of Global Grief

How often over the past couple of weeks have you heard this phrase: “We’re in this together?” Whether in an Instagram post, chalked on a neighbor’s driveway, or even proclaimed at the end of a car commercial, this seems to be the catchphrase of the pandemic.

I wonder if, like me, you’ve also had this thought: If we’re in this together, why do I feel so alone?

In the first few days of quarantine, I was astounded by all the productivity I was witnessing on social media: homeschool schedules, beautiful loaves of bread, stacks of homemade masks, window art. But here in the Peterson household, I was having a tough time just getting off the couch.

Prior to the pandemic, I was on a leadership team of a community Bible study class, busily preparing a lecture for its members. And then, without any real warning, class was cancelled. Church and school were cancelled. Life as we knew it: cancelled.

I watched in amazement as my team leapt into action: learning the ins and outs of Zoom and YouTube, determined to provide an online version of nearly everything we’d offered before it all shut down. I tried to rally with them, but instead felt like I was wading through jello. It seemed like everyone else was off and running with these new parameters, while I was left behind, feeling more like dead weight than a functioning member of our team.

And then, mercifully, I stumbled across an article making its way around the internet: “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.” Just reading the title, I felt my jaw unclench and my shoulders go slack. Of course. OF COURSE. This is grief. My old archenemy, rearing its ugly head once again.

My grief journey first began in December 2016, with a midnight knock at the door that left our family shattered. My mom had been unable to reach me on my cell phone, so the police were dispatched to inform us that my 61-year-old, never-took-a-sick-day-in-his-life father had been rushed to the ER after a cardiac event in my parents’ living room. By the time I arrived at the hospital, his body was lifeless on a gurney. My mom stood next to him in utter disbelief, weeping and murmuring the same phrase over and over again: “How can this be? How can this be?”

It was the refrain that we would hear for months to come. And now it has returned with COVID-19. We wake up in the morning, and the reality of what’s going on around us hits once again: How can this be?

The physicality of sudden grief was perhaps the most jarring. Before my dad died, I would hear the word “grief” and understand it to be synonymous with mourning, with deep sadness. But I didn’t know that I would also feel it in my body: aching muscles, tight chest, constricted throat. I didn’t know that I would (or could) experience lethargy and anxiety at the same time: the deep desire to take a nap, and the perpetually cycling thoughts that would prevent said nap. I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking (weirdly) about my grocery list, unable to get back to sleep. I felt like a crazy person.

The other surprise was the feeling of isolation. Even in my own family, where we were all grieving the same person, I felt completely alone. I would try to talk with my mom about how I was feeling, and immediately would feel a sense of shame. After all, didn’t my loss pale in comparison to hers? She was grieving her husband — her person. I had my own family waiting for me at home, while she was completely and suddenly alone. I tried to console myself with thoughts of “at least”: At least I had him for 35 years or At least I didn’t have to watch him suffer.

It didn’t work. Those thoughts just deepened my sorrow and left me feeling like no one could possibly understand.

Four years later, this global crisis has brought much of that initial grief experience roaring back, but I still didn’t recognize it for what it was. And it’s weird, but there is power in the recognition. “If we can name [grief],” Scott Berinato, the article’s author, states, “Perhaps we can manage it.” I couldn’t agree more.

Maybe you’re feeling achy, too, or lethargic. Tears might be just below the surface, spilling out at the worst possible times. If so, I wonder if naming your grief might help you like it has helped me.

A crisis can immediately take you back to a traumatic event from the past, reopening wounds you thought healed long ago. It might also be your first visit from this alien invader, making you, too, think you’re a crazy person. I assure you, you are not.

Your sadness is an appropriate response. So are anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — the famous (and non-linear) stages of grief that Elisabeth Kubler Ross brought to the forefront years ago.

Thankfully, there is good news for the grieving. We have a merciful Savior who is well acquainted with grief. If anyone understands the feeling of being suddenly confined, it’s Jesus, the King of Glory, who left His freedom and heavenly throne to inhabit the confines of frail human flesh. He gets it. His arms are open wide to you today. God promises to be near to the brokenhearted and save the crushed in spirit. I have experienced this in spades in recent years.

Just a few months after we buried my dad, my mom began experiencing chest pain. Initially, she dismissed the pain, thinking it was a side effect from so much crying. But the tears had only just begun.

A scan soon revealed cancer. It would be her fourth battle with triple-negative, metastatic breast cancer, and it would be her final one.

I was immediately thrust into a new kind of grief: not knowing exactly what was ahead. Before I had been sad. So sad. But my mother’s diagnosis left me afraid. So afraid.

Facing my greatest fears became a way of life in that season, and now again in this one. The coronavirus has arrived, accompanied by great uncertainty and very real threats: overwhelmed hospitals, asymptomatic carriers, not enough ventilators… not to mention economic instability and loss of livelihood for many. It’s legitimately frightening.

Many of my brothers and sisters in Christ have told me that they are not afraid. But since all of this began, fear has been my frequent visitor. Not because I don’t believe God is good or is working for my good — I absolutely do. But I have also witnessed firsthand that His goodness does not mean we will not suffer. Jesus loved Lazarus. And yet Lazarus got sick. And then, Lazarus died.

Same with my dad. Same with my mom.

So for those who are afraid, you’ll find no condemnation here. When it became clear that my mom was indeed dying, I took great comfort in studying the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Those drops of blood on the surface of his skin were not the result of sin, but a physical manifestation of deep emotion, perhaps even anticipatory grief. Jesus begged God to spare Him. He surrendered to the will of His Father, but first He pleaded for His life.

And now that same Savior pleads for us. Do not miss the beautiful reality that God did not spare Himself great grief so that we would never face ours alone.

So if there’s one final thought I can share, it is this: Even if you are in complete isolation during this time, physically or emotionally, you are not alone. Jesus is near. He experienced all of the same emotions and turmoil, and there is no condemnation for those who trust in Him today. Run to Him, and watch as He redeems this season of loss and loneliness.

In addition to His own company, God has also graciously given us one another. We are in this together, but we only experience that togetherness when we take the brave step of sharing how we truly are and inviting others in. They might need permission to name their own grief, and you sharing yours could be the very lifeline they’ve been looking for.

We are promised this amazing thing in 2 Corinthians 1, that when God gives us comfort, He also gives us the ability to pass it on to others. Already, He has given me some beautiful opportunities to share God-given comfort with others, and I don’t think He is done.

As I walked through my own loss and grief, I was reminded of Jacob wrestling the angel, and I told my sorrow, “I will not let you go until you bless me!”

And now, just a few years later — in the middle of a global pandemic, no less — it is clear to me that God has answered that prayer. To walk alongside others in their grief is a holy privilege; to share comfort is the ultimate gift. I’m finding out more and more each day what it means to be sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. And that loss is not where the road ends — in fact, it’s probably right where it begins.

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