I Really Didn’t See it Coming: Grief and COVID-19

Early last week, the County Department of Health mandated the 48-hour closure of the church where I work because one of the (then) handful of confirmed cases of COVID-19 was the parent of a child who attends our church’s day care center. I spent a lot of time thinking about the back door of our church: the one that all of the day care parents and children use, the one that all our youth use when they come and go from Sunday evening programming, the one that adjoins our handicapped-accessible ramp and parking lot and is most often used by the oldest and most feeble members of our congregation.

We all worked from home for those 48 hours, video conferencing for hours, devising strategies for moving forward with our church’s programming. I sent dozens of emails to check in on our youth and their families. I followed the news and monitored the responses of local school districts. I prepared devotionals for our youth, all the while thinking of that back door, its handles and railings. I calculated the amount of time that the COVID-19 virus could remain viable and communicable on those surfaces (inconclusive: several hours to several days, according to the World Health Organization). I calculated the number of people who go in and out of that back door in the average week (approximately 900).   

And I went to the grocery store. I stocked up on all my pre-snowstorm essentials: milk, bread, eggs, Diet Pepsi, coffee creamer. I know how to hunker down and wait out the chaos of the outside world because I grew up in Upstate New York where blizzards are commonplace. I can remember, as a kid, filling up the bathtub so that we could be sure that we would have enough water to flush the toilets, should the power go out for an extended period. I am made of tougher stuff than this, I thought. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer: for two years I did all my laundry by hand and mastered the art of the squat toilet. Bring it on; I’ll be fine. 

And I kept working: writing for my seminary classes, then reading, then answering emails, then sending emails, then modifying my calendar, then making alternate arrangements for my youth group. I planned for social isolation, brainstorming ways to take our church’s programming online. I read the opinions of public health experts. I tracked the responses of our members on Facebook, connected with older folks in our congregation, posted words of encouragement on social media. My nose was at the proverbial grindstone. 

And then I started cleaning. I spent hours on my hands and knees, wiping and scrubbing and washing. I mopped under the refrigerator. I devised a special attachment for my vacuum cleaner that would eliminate the dust between the slats in my miniblinds. As I was using an old toothbrush to scrub the tiny crevices on the keypad of the microwave, I finally realized that I was grieving. 

I really hadn’t seen it coming. 

I have a lot of experience with grief and I have a lot of experience with clinical depression, and I finally recognized that this was grief: this Puritanical and quasi-manic need for “productivity,” this desire to clean and tidy and somehow “make right” that which is sullied and chaotic, this compulsion to press ahead and maintain a sense of normalcy in a world that has been inverted and subverted. This is what I do when I’m grieving. 

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus – and the attendant measures put in place by government authorities to mitigate its spread – triggered a kind of bereavement process that I had not anticipated. Philosopher Thomas Attig, in his book, How We Grieve: Relearning the World, says that we grieve at all sorts of “choiceless events . . . such as when we divorce, lose a friendship, lose a home, lose a job, or suffer physical disabilities or amputations.” “Global pandemic” is not in Attig’s list or my own narrative framework for loss, however. This isn’t grieving like other grieving that I’ve done or known—but you cannot compare or rank grief experiences, either within your own experience of loss or against the loss experiences of others. 

Even for those of us who are not (yet) mourning the death of someone we love, the loss to our established order is a significant one. COVID-19 necessitates a fundamental shift in the way that we live in this world and we must, as Attig outlines in his book, “relearn the world”—intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, behaviorally, and socially. This grieving/coping process does not occur in stages (as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and other imagine) and varies enormously from person to person, depending on the circumstances of his/her/their lives and the narratives that have shaped their identities. Attig opines that “as we relearn our ways of being in the world, we identify, explore, test, and ultimately appropriate new ways of going on.” 

I have stopped thinking so much about the back door of the church. I find myself reading and re-reading the Book of Lamentations, identifying with Daughter Zion, sitting in my grief and asking God for answers to impossible questions. I’m trying to figure out how we can celebrate my sister’s 30th birthday this week. I’m thinking about ways to economize, upcycle, and stretch my supplies. I scrub a bit less. I still spend too much time online tracking the epidemiological data, but I’ve also set up a new prayer routine based on the ways that the sun shines through my apartment windows, akin to the sort of rituals that our Muslim friends use each day. I take a small measure of comfort in knowing that I have grieved before and survived. I take an even greater measure of comfort in knowing that my God is with me even in the depths. 


Rebeka Fergusson-Lutz is the Coordinator of Youth Ministry at Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, and also a certified EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). After teaching high school English and ESL for several years, she is now preparing for full-time professional ministry at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. 

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