Grief and Gifts in the Pandemic

I remember, as a young person, being given a book filled with short facts about human beings. I admit I can’t recall most of them, but the one piece that I do remember was about how people get dressed in the morning. The book observed that most people follow a routine when getting dressed. The routine is different for each person, but one probably always puts either their left or right sock on first. At the time, I had never thought of this and began to pay more attention. Sure enough, I always put my left sock on before the right (still do!). I remember this bit of trivia because it was the first time it had occurred to me that humans are creatures deeply invested in habit and routine, even routines and habits that we don’t realize we’ve created for ourselves.

When our routines are disrupted or ended, it’s a difficult thing. Giving up habits that we’d rather not have or instilling ones we’d like to have requires immense willpower and discipline. When routines we enjoy, appreciate and love are suddenly taken from us by circumstances beyond our control — like our corporate worship as a church being suspended and disrupted by a global pandemic — it’s more than difficult. It’s a deeply-felt loss and something that we grieve. ­

Our worship is a series of structured routines. The structure of our offices and sacramental rites, the structure of our liturgical seasons and the sanctoral cycle, even the structure of rites like baptisms and funerals which mark milestones in life, are familiar ceremonies into which we slip, and where we expect to meet God in particular ways. The familiar structure helps us to readily teach new friends and family of our traditions, but it also offers us a lifeline to hold on to in times of great sorrow, tumult, or joy when we cannot give our entire focus to worship. All the familiarity and comfort offered through these routines of the Church was taken from us in mid-March and, even in those communities where some manner of in-person worship has returned, our services feel like anything but “normal.”

The specifics of what we miss and what we grieve are deeply personal and different for everyone. We grieve the opportunity to regularly participate in corporate celebrations of the sacraments and other important ceremonies. There are a great many baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other important events that have been put on hold indefinitely, suspended until a time when the community can gather to properly observe them. We feel the loss of familiar rites of healing, of spiritual nourishment and the many “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace” that we have come to think of as readily available to meet our needs or desires. We long for our ceremonies.

We grieve the loss of making music together, especially singing. We miss those familiar tunes which so readily recall lyrics that speak of our faith — psalms and songs which speak truths about the lives of the People of God in all times, drawing us into solidarity with all of those who have sung them before us and those who will sing them long after we are gone from this life. We long to sing together again as the Body of Christ, to create something beautiful through which God is met and the spirits of those who hear are restored.

We grieve our time together, as friends, neighbours, and family. I was recently speaking with an acquaintance to whom I asked how they were doing in the absence of regular church services. They replied, “You know, in all of this time away from church, I’ve realized that I’m not as religious as I thought. Not very religious at all, actually. But I really, really miss seeing my friends.” I was a little surprised by this. Not at what they had said, but that they were so very honest about it! However, their comment was a good reminder that Church does not end with the liturgical dismissal. It carries on into the greetings in the narthex, the hugs and shaken hands, the exchange of news and well-wishes, the pouring of coffee and sharing of lunch, and spills forth with the people of God out into the world. The commitment of the members of the Body of Christ to one another, exercised in the liminal space of parish hall fellowship after the liturgy, is so important to our formation as disciples. We long for our fellowship.

But these past months have not entirely been times of loss and grieving. We have also discovered gifts, new and old, in our storerooms. Some of us have discovered or remembered the importance of a home prayer tradition, prayer in the morning and evening and the rhythms of prayers before meals. The rituals of prayer and reading scripture with family members have become more important foci for our lives of faith. These new rhythms of prayer are, indeed, gifts.

As new forms of congregational and diocesan worship are coming to light — the incorporation of recorded and live streaming liturgies, offices, prayer services, bible studies, and discussion groups – we are being pushed us as a Church. We are being pushed to have important conversations about our worship, pushed to have greater visibility (and vulnerability) in the world, and pushed to allow for the possibility of connections in worship with people at great geographical distances. Yet again, we find ourselves recognizing these new forms of worship as gifts.

Our important ministry of intentional connection is being adopted and strengthened by so many of us. Phone calls, emails, Zoom meetings, and physically distanced conversations are being drawn out from the realm of happenstance and made into intentional and interactive moments between members of the Body. These deliberate moves to establish deeper connections — asking “How are you?” as more than just a way of making small talk—are gifts we offer to one another.

The future remains uncertain. We don’t know when things will truly get “back to normal” and there is a real possibility that the new normal won’t be exactly like the days before this pandemic. As we establish new habits and routines, we will grieve that which we have lost. But we must also celebrate these new gifts we have been given, and be reminded that, even in our grief, we are loved by a faithful God who blesses in abundance.

Andrew Rampton is the chaplain of St. John’s College and the incumbent of St Bartholomew’s Church, Winnipeg.

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