Whose Turn Is It?
Part one of a two part series on grief in the time of COVID
This last Sunday was All Saints, a festival in which we speak the names of those who have died in the last year. Two of the names were written by me. Two people I loved. My own dead. But those two names, Henry and Matt were accompanied by dozens more. Dozens. More names than my heart could hold. Unlike All Saints services in the past, this year everyone seemed to have at least one name to write on the list. Most had more.
Then yesterday a friend of mine shared this beautiful poem:
WHEN YOU MEET SOMEONE DEEP IN GRIEF
Slip off your needs
and set them by the door.
this darkened chapel
hollowed by loss hallowed by sorrow
its gray stone walls and floor.
You, congregation of one
are here to listen not to sing.
Kneel in the back pew. Make no sound,
let the candles speak.
-Patricia McKernon Runkle Grief’s Compass: Walking in the Wilderness with Emily Dickinson (Apprentice House Press, 2017)
I’ve said this before, but I feel as though, before the pandemic, there was a turn-taking aspect to grief. If you were grieving, I would likely not be. I could and would “slip off my needs at the door” and listen. As you would for me if our situations were reversed.
But that is gone now. There no longer seem to be “those who are grieving” and “those who are not grieving”. These categories went the way of crowded audiences and kissing your loved ones. Now there are only degrees of loss and sorrow.
Before COVID, most of us had already loved enough to know what loss feels like. But the pandemic compounded the pernicious, but normal rate of loss that is inevitable in life. There are loved ones and friendships and marriages and jobs and savings accounts and even senses of smell that have not survived this fucking pandemic.
The Atlantic last week had a fascinating piece titled The American Workplace Isn’t Prepared For This Much Grief which begins with this sentence, “The extent of our collective bereavement in the US today is staggering”. Indeed.
So, when grief is a baseline shared by everyone - a starting point, not a season - then despite the commonness of it, our own grief feels more personal, not less.
With all of this, I’m not sure if we should bring back those black arm bands for those in mourning or if we should all just wear a t-shirt everyday that says “I’m sorry for your loss” since it seems to be everyone.
All I know is that most of the people I know are mourning something right now and there are moments I have what it takes to kneel in the back pew, listen to them and make no sound - and moments when I do not. And I seem to enter in and out of my ability to be present sometimes in the very same day and sometimes in the very same hour.
So I think the cycle of turn-taking, much like grief itself, is something that we just have to take a moment at a time. So, may we have the gentleness with ourselves and others to not expect a whole lot. May we send our friends a loving and compassionate text when we are in the space to do so, and understand when they aren’t able to take our call. May we soak up their texts to us, and have some self-compassion when we just cannot pick up their call.
For me, this is a kind of contemplative living. To pay attention to what I have to give, and to receive, without expectation, what others have to offer. It is enough.
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Litany of the Saints
O Cosmic Christ,
and through you
and for you,
all things were created;
all things hold together
and have their being.
scientist of the cosmos,
you imagined a new heaven and a new earth.
Through Teresa of Avila,
you inspired a church of courage and wisdom.
Through Mahatma Gandhi,
you became nonviolent in the struggle for justice.
Through Catherine of Siena,
you forged a new path for women.
Through Meister Eckhart,
you refused to abandon the inner light.
Through Hildegard of Bingen,
greenness of God,
you poured out juicy, rich grace on all creation.
Through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
drum major of freedom,
you shattered racial barriers
and freed dreamers to dream.
Through Anne Frank,
writer and witness,
you preserved goodness in the midst of great evil.
Through Cesar Chavez,
you transformed the dignity of human labor.
Through Harriet Tubman,
prophet and pilgrim,
you led the captives into freedom.
Through Vincent Van Gogh,
artist of light,
you revealed the sacredness
and in starry nights.
Through Mother Teresa of Calcutta,
guardian of the unwanted,
you enfleshed a reverence for all life.
Through Thomas Merton,
you explored the sanctity of every human search.
Through Mary Magdalene,
apostle to the apostles,
you ordained women to proclaim the good news.
Through Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,
musician of Holy Mystery,
you bathed the world in beauty.
Through Julian of Norwich,
anchoress and seer,
you showed the Mother image of God.
Through Joan of Arc,
defender and protector,
you remained true to personal conscience
over institutional law.
poet in ecstasy,
you illuminated friendship as mystical union.
Through Rabbi Abraham Heschel,
you answered our search for meaning
with wonder, pathos for the poor, and Sabbath rest.
Through Dorothy Day,
pillar of the poor,
you recognized holiness as bread for the hungry.
O Cosmic Christ,
in your heart
all history finds meaning and purpose.
In this community gathered
help us find that which we all seek:
a communion of love
with each other
and with you, the Alpha and Omega,
the first and last,
the yesterday, today, and tomorrow,
the beginning without end.
-By Mary Lou Kownacki