This week the United States surpassed a tragic milestone: Half a million people in this country have died from COVID-19 — a number that, while devastating, doesn’t even take into account the full human toll of the virus. While numbers of cases, deaths, and hospitalizations have begun to fall precipitously (for a variety of overlapping reasons) and nearly 50 million Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, this dark winter feels like a prolonged wilderness of grief and loss.
Since the pandemic began roughly a year ago, I have shed more tears than I have in my entire lifetime. Tears of grief for the loss of loved ones, including one of my mentors and beloved fraternity brothers Judge Horace Johnson. Tears of anguish over the widespread economic devastation and protracted hardships. Tears of righteous anger over deep denial and failures in leadership. As we mark this milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths, it is important to explore how our nation and the church grieve such immense loss of life. We can’t, nor should we, simply move on. Individual and collective mourning is a critical part of how we process, how we remember, and how we heal. Further, collective grief can move us toward common purpose in this time marked by such profound division. For Christians, as we move through this season of Lent, it’s important not to become numb to the sheer scale of these numbers and lose sight of the reality that each death represents an individual person, loved by God and made in God’s image, who had parents and family and friends and whose loss has ripple effects across many lives. And on this side of eternity, each one of these beloved children of God has left behind a real void.
Churches are on the front lines of helping parishioners cope with the magnitude of this personal and collective tragedy, even as what church looks like has evolved in the past year. Now it is church’s role to offer a template for what collective lament and community look like amid a global pandemic. The milestone of 500,000 American lives cut tragically short reminds us of Lent’s importance in a nation and world undergoing so much pain. The journey between now and resurrection Sunday must inevitably go through a wilderness of grief.
In this moment, I believe that all churches should be actively creating space and support to accompany people through their grief and trauma, and I’m grateful that many churches are already finding ways to do this. This commitment models the Apostle Paul’s call in Ephesians 4:16 for the whole body to be joined and held together by supporting one another, particularly the most vulnerable, through their pain.
Given the restrictive lockdown regulations and stay-at-home orders, most people have not had a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones or engage in funeral rituals. As a result, millions have not experienced a regular grief cycle that could begin the healing process. According to the American Psychological Association, the “combination of a predicted mental health pandemic subsequent to COVID-19 and a lack of trained counselors sets the stage for a global tragedy surrounding uncountable – and unnecessary – ‘deaths of despair.’” The kind of trauma we are all experiencing forebodes long-term psychological impacts. The Centers for Disease Control recommends a series of actions that help people better cope with feelings of grief after the loss of a loved one — all of which are at the heart of the pastoral ministry and the church’s vocation — including: connecting people with other people, creating memories or rituals, and helping people get connected to the help that they need such as grief counseling or mental health services, support groups, or hotlines.
In predominantly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities and churches, the need is even more acute, as COVID has claimed lives at twice the rate as white Americans. Last week the National Center for Health Statistics reported that life expectancy in the United States “fell by a full year during the first half of 2020, a staggering decline that reflects the toll of the covid-19 pandemic as well as a rise in deaths from drug overdoses, heart attacks and diseases that accompanied the outbreak.” In stark terms, Black Americans lost 2.7 years of life expectancy, and Latinos lost 1.9. White life expectancy fell 0.8 years.
I have been mesmerized watching the new PBS series The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This is Our Song, which “traces the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America, all the way down to its bedrock role as the site of African American survival and grace, organizing and resilience, thriving and testifying, autonomy and freedom, solidarity and speaking truth to power.” The Black church is my tradition, and I’m proud of the ways so many churches continue to play a crucial role in helping members through unimaginable trauma. For the last 400 years, it’s helped us through the trauma of slavery, Jim Crow, police violence, mass incarceration, and now a disease that exploits centuries of structural inequalities to kill us disproportionately.
Rev. Dr. Leslie Copeland Tune recently told Sojourners that the Black church is “born out of struggle [and] has kept a people, encouraged a people, and equipped a people.” Or as Rev. Otis Moss III put it, “resiliency is our brand ... and in this moment in history we need to re-engage the idea of resiliency within our nation.” Or as Danté Stewart’s mother told him after he survived COVID-19, as he related in a powerful article for Sojourners magazine on the radical endurance of Black Christians: “The Lord is a keeper and a healer and will keep us through the fiery furnace.” Even if we still can't gather together, we all need to preserve the connection and community that helps power this endurance.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, the Apostle Paul says Christians should not “grieve as others do who have no hope” but instead can grieve with the hope of salvation and the reassurance of Emmanuel, that God is always with us. While loss upon loss can shake our faith and lead to feelings of anger and abandonment with God, these common feelings are exactly why people need more spiritual support and care, not less. For those who are wrestling with shame or stigma due to the loss of a loved one, they can be reminded that, “There is now no condemnation in Christ” (Romans 8:1). It is also critical to give ourselves and others greater grace to grieve differently and for a longer period of time in the midst of these extraordinary times. While it is true that “weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5), that morning may not come as quickly as we would like.
Bathing ourselves in God’s unconditional love is the most potent balm for our grief and trauma. Staying in closer contact and relationship with family, loved ones, and fellow church members may be one of the most powerful ways to rest from grief. In the end, we can all find solace and hope in God’s promise that “nothing can separate us from God’s love, neither death nor life” (Romans 8:38). As hard as it may be, together we can and will get through this wilderness of grief, drawing on the hope and promise of our faith.