March 8, 2022
Ashes for Pandemic Grief
A reflection on grief during Lent
by Dr. Amy Davis Abdallah
I’m sad. And I’m tired. Are you?
I’ve grown to love Ash Wednesday and Lent, but I feel too tired to focus on repentance, mortality, and giving up this year. I’ve already lost so much; how can I choose to give up anything more? I have experienced so much death, how can I focus on mortality even more? I already feel badly, how can I choose to look at my sin and feel even worse?
And ashes are for grief, too.
This Lent will look different for me.
This Lent, I’m choosing to grieve.
For the last two years, there has been no time or space to grieve. We’ve had no space to feel our losses. Instead, we’ve been tense and ready. We’ve refreshed websites again and again just to get that appointment for grocery delivery, for a vaccine. We’ve waited in lines outside stores, in lines for vaccines, in lines for voting. We’ve read and listened, not sure who is telling us the truth about anything. We’ve watched murders due to racism. We’ve been full of fear. We’ve demonstrated in the streets. We’ve kept our kids home as we worked from home. We’ve sent our kids to school masked and we’ve worried with every sniffle and cough. We’ve canceled holiday gatherings, birthday gatherings, all gatherings.
They told us the vaccinated no longer needed masks. And we breathed a sigh of relief. Then there was Delta. We tensed up again. We readied ourselves again with hand sanitizer, masks, and of course, toilet paper. They told us about problems in the supply chain again.
And then there was Omicron (most wondered how many Greek letters separated these variants). We questioned gatherings again. We got vaccinated again. We spiked more than three times higher than any other time in the pandemic.
And now, March 2022, masks mandates are lifted. Numbers seem good. Spring is almost here. Two years after our worldwide shutdown.
And I’m sad and tired.
I need to grieve. I lost my beloved pastor, not due to COVID, but in the middle of the pandemic in August, 2020. I couldn’t hug people at the wake and I could only attend the funeral via livestream. It’s a huge loss that has continued effects. In the middle of the Omicron surge, COVID took the life of a beloved friend when she was 30 weeks pregnant. Her daughter survived, but I still feel heavy and tight in the middle of my chest whenever I think about her. It makes it hard to breathe.
But my losses are not only due to death—they are more ambiguous than that. Ambiguous losses are the ones without the death certificate and without the official verification, according to Psychologist Pauline Boss. Some are more simple: the loss of freedom and mobility due to lockdowns, the loss of regular routines like church. Some are more complex: the loss of a feeling of safety when someone with your skin color is killed or beaten due to their race.1
Ambiguous losses are often unrecognized by broader society, even though they flow Iike a continuous river in the back of our minds. My husband was stuck overseas during the first two months of our lockdown, and though he did return, that was the worst time of my life (I’m not exaggerating). And while I’ve processed it and am in a good place, I haven’t achieved closure. I was comforted to read that Boss thinks closure is a western myth. It’s okay to still feel some grief even as we walk forward.2
In the Bible, ashes often signify grief. On Ash Wednesday, when I received a cross of ashes on my forehead, I began a season of intentional grief.
Counterintuitively, this is not morbid. Rather, this is renewing.
Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, would agree. He writes about the prophets that spoke during the worst time the people of God had ever experienced: the exile. He titles the first part of his book, “Only Grief Permits Newness,” demonstrating how Jeremiah’s grief was the only road for newness for all.3
Journalist Helen Russell would also agree. Psychologist Dr. Laurie Santos interviewed Russell about her book, How to be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned about Getting Happier by being Sad Better. Russell talks about “Arrival Fallacy,” which is the myth that once you get what you want, then you’ll be happy. Applied here, she would tell us not to think that once the pandemic is over, we will finally be happy. She encourages us to welcome our feelings of grief in order that we might come out on the other side with greater resilience and joy.4
I want greater resilience and joy.
I need the newness Jeremiah, “the weeping prophet,” shows will come through grief.
Therefore, I will grieve this Lent.
This Lent, I will write down the names of those I’ve lost to death and I will say their names. This Lent, I will write down my ambiguous losses and I will state them out loud. I’ll probably make some kind of artwork or dance or some creative thing that helps me express my grief.
I will not demand closure, but I will pay attention. I will probably cry.
When we read Isaiah 53, we think of Jesus and how he bore our sins on the cross. Sometimes, perhaps often, we miss where it states that Jesus bore our griefs and sorrows (verse 4, NASB 1995). Some versions render “sorrows” as “suffering.” It was not only sins that our Savior carried. He also carried our grief. Jesus knew the loss of death: he lost his father Joseph at a young age.5 Jesus also knew ambiguous loss: his best friends slept when he asked them to pray on the worst day of his life, and then they deserted him. During this Lenten journey to the cross and to resurrection, I might just lift my grieving eyes to the art of a crucifix to remember how Jesus is with me in grief. As Bishop Fulton Sheen states, “A Christ without a cross is a [person] without a mission, and a cross without a Christ is a burden without a reliever.”
The prophet Isaiah is a prophet of hope. It is he who penned the words Jesus read and declared fulfilled in Luke 4. The good news of the gospel? It is broad, but it includes binding up the broken-hearted (Is. 61:1), provision for those who grieve as the bestowal of “a crown of beauty instead of ashes” (Is. 61:3). May my ashes for pandemic grief transform the pain of death and ambiguous losses into a beautiful crown to lay down at the feet of Jesus.
Amy Davis Abdallah is Professor of Theology and Bible at Nyack College and Alliance Theological Seminary. Amy preaches and teaches for churches, conferences, and other ministries in the United States and internationally. She is passionate about encouraging Christian women to expand the Kingdom of God through the educational program Empower as well as a rite of passage for Nyack College Seniors. She is the author of The Book of Womanhood; her writing has been featured in Everbloom, , The Wonder Years, and by Christianity Today, CBE International, Redbud Writers Guild, InterVarsity Fellowship, and Missio Alliance. Amy loves to exercise, take photos, climb mountains, adventure with her husband and sons, learn languages, and enjoy the beach. Find her on the web at amyfdavisabdallah.com and on Twitter @amyfdavisa.
- Pauline Boss, The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change (New York: W.W. Norton, 2021), 17-21.
- Ibid., 8.
- Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986).
- Helen Russell, interview with Dr. Laurie Santos, The Happiness Lab, audio, January 31, 2022, https://www.happinesslab.fm/2022-new-year-mini-season/embracing-sadness-in-the-pursuit-of-happiness.
- Though Joseph was not his biological father, he was still Jesus’ father figure.
Photo courtesy of Annika Gordon on Unsplash.