National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” news broadcasts have been telling stories of some of the people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. So has Lester Holt on the NBC evening news. The New York Times recently published the names of thousands of the deceased on its front page. Our nation crossed a terrible threshold this week: 100,000 people have been killed by COVID-19, the plague that has infected more than 1.7 million Americans.
This is not fake news. This is not a hoax. Our nation’s respected public health physicians and scientists have no reason to lie to us about this dangerous and mysterious disease. People are dying. Doctors, nurses, and first responders are risking their own lives to care for them.
Thoughtful people of faith are praying, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray for an end to the pandemic. We pray for a cure or an effective vaccine. As we pray shall we not also take time to grieve? We want to think happy thoughts. We are inclined to turn away in denial. We numb our brains with social media and Netflix. We tell ourselves that those who have died are far away and unknown to us.
Can this be the right response to the tragedy of this historical moment? I wonder if a failure to grieve these losses will exact an emotional toll at some future time. I remember a time in my own life when I experienced the sadness of a great loss. I did not face the situation in an emotionally mature way. I denied my feelings of loss. I did not talk to anyone about them. Instead, I put on a brave demeanor and tried to be strong. It was fully a year later that depression hit me like a sledgehammer! I have learned that this was a delayed grief reaction, the result of a failure to grieve in a healthy way at the time when I most needed to do it.
Grief is a normal and appropriate response to a severe loss. It is not evidence of weak faith or moral defect. Sooner or later every person has to face the reality of death, separation, and loss. No one escapes. The New Testament reminds us that believers sometimes experience grief, but not without a final hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
Two other examples come to mind, Job and Jesus. They show us constructive expressions of grief. They did not deny their sadness. They poured out their hearts in lament. In Job, we find a man expressing his grief in anger, doubt, depression, fatigue, and regret. His physical pain has him praying for death. Yet through it all, he retained his faith in God and affirmed his belief in his eventual resurrection (Job 19:25-26).
If Job’s grief was for his personal suffering, our Lord’s lament was for others, for the people of Jerusalem. On at least two occasions he voiced his sorrow over the city’s rejection of God’s kingdom (Luke 13:34-35, 19:41-44). What brought Jesus to tears was the realization that the city’s course was set for destruction. His was vicarious grief expressed for those who would not know what they could have known of God’s freedom and peace. They had refused to “recognize the time of God’s coming” to them in the person of Jesus.
The Lord’s lament for others is a lesson for us. If we find it hard to empathize with the sorrows of others, perhaps we should pause to think more deeply about what they are going through. We hear of victims of the coronavirus who spend weeks in isolation, and who must die alone, because of the danger of contagion. We hear of families who cannot honor their loved ones with traditional funeral rituals. No gatherings of friends. No compassionate hugs. Their grief is solitary. Can we weep for them? Can we pray for them?
I heard this week of a local family whose husband and father died of the disease. The wife was asymptomatic and under quarantine. At the graveside service for her husband, she and her son had to maintain physical separation. And they were the only ones present for the burial! This story is being repeated daily, thousands of times, all over America. Do we really understand the emotional toll this is taking on our fellow citizens? Do we really think there will be no delayed trauma, possibly expressed in unhealthy ways?
A friend of mine is grieving. She is approaching the anniversary of her husband’s death, a great sorrow. She told me about her way of facing down the emotional triggers that lead to doubt and fear. She does it in the same way she faced her grief as he was dying. She writes, notebooks filled with memories and prayers. She talks, freely and honestly, with trusted confidants. She prays, with the assurance that as she comes near to God, he is coming near to her (James 4:8).
I think that is precisely what we should be doing for our nation. Lamentation is an appropriate way to pray in these circumstances. Our nation is facing unprecedented and universal disruption. Grief is a normal response. Intercession, for our nation’s leaders, for clinicians, for scientists engaged in a search for a cure, and for victims and their loved ones, is always right. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Praise to Jesus is also required, lest we forget that he is “the Living One who was dead and is alive forever and ever” (Revelation 1 :18)! Those who die believing in him are now very much alive (John 11:25). This is the assurance that will carry us through grief.