Praying with grief in a Covid-19 world
BRENDAN McMANUS SJ and JIM DEEDS :: The stinging wound of grief is always hard to bear, but in this new Covid-19 world things have become ever more complicated and, in relation to bereavement and loss, ever more painful. We know that loved ones are unable to be present at the moment of death, and mourners are denied even that most basic ritual of a wake. Funerals themselves have been curtailed with families having to make heart-breaking decisions about who will be able to attend. In this way mourners feel separated from their loved ones. At best they are bystanders at a short graveyard service.
All this is understandable, wise even, given the potency of Covid 19 and the ensuing restrictions. The emotional cost, though, is very high. People are deprived of key rituals, symbols and gestures of grieving that are crucial to good coping and avoiding later trauma. There is often numbness and detachment with people struggling to believe that it has really happened.
How can we bring insight from a faith perspective to such a difficult situation? Perhaps one way is to find consolation in knowing that we are not alone – no-one ever really is. We could look to the Passion of Jesus Christ to see this. In one viewing Jesus died alone, nailed to a tree, disgraced and abandoned. It seemed like an unimaginable tragedy, but that was not the end of the story. We know through Jesus that death did not win out, and his resurrection brings hope to us all.
Let us, however, for a moment focus on his mother and the few friends who had to look on Jesus’s death from a distance; not being able to be close to him or to hold his hand while he died. Jesus was buried secretly with barely a few witnesses. His mother would have wept and held His friends. Perhaps she consoled them with words like, “He is at rest now” or “Into your hands, Lord”, She remembered His promise and sensed God at work even in these dark hours. She may have known that His absence was temporary, His return, imminent.
In our moments of grief and loss we are stricken just as His mother was. We wait, in silent witness of the horror of this pandemic. We may feel entombed ourselves in our own painful bereavement, unable to hold those in the clutch of death. We may even cry out, “Why are we forsaken?” We give up our spirit in grief.
Mary’s experience at the Cross is instructive for us: there is no escaping the desperate pain she endured seeing her son die. However, St. Ignatius always held that Mary was the first among those that the risen Jesus appeared to. She was the first as she was the closest and the one who loved Him most. Death had not the final word.
We feel the pain now she felt for all of us then. We hold each other. We hear a Mother’s call to us: “remember His promise.” And we are awake to her call; to His message of hope. Today may feel like Good Friday but Easter Sunday will come. And we come to know this most powerfully when we bring our grief to prayer.
Of course, taking this to prayer, the deepest part of us, is a challenging and difficult journey. A first step can be simply remembering to pray, to talk to God about this. The second step is to enlist God’s help with this mess where we find ourselves. It can have many elements: resentment with the situation, a sense of injustice, anger with the person or with God for allowing it to happen. It can be a minefield of raw emotions, the opening up of previous wounds of grief, and a feeling of numbess or being out of control. It is important to cut yourself some slack, remembering that these are normal emotions for great loss and that these are far from normal times.
St Ignatius Loyola recommends: pray with the difficulties and ‘the mess’ in order that we may be free from unnecessary weights and travel light. This change of focus helps to break old ways of thinking and praying and moves us into a new space where we can at least be able to express ourselves. Imagine God suffering with you in your pain and loss, God’s heart breaking for you, wanting to be with you in your grief. Here are some simple but profound steps in praying with grief.
Find yourself a place to sit or lie down where you can be silent and undisturbed for a few minutes. If it helps, you could use some reflective music in the background. Breathe and notice the breath go in and go out again. Feel what it does to your body as your chest rises with the breath in and then falls again with the breath out. Feel your body and its rhythm as you breathe. As the seconds pass by, you may feel your body get heavier on the chair or bed. This is good. This is a sign you are relaxing. Stay with the sensation of your chest rising and falling. Allow your mind to settle on this sensation and this part of your body. Inside your chest is your heart. As you breathe, try to tune in to the beats of your heart. You may feel it as a kind of thump or a kind of pulse. As you begin to feel it, know that this is a sure sign of God’s love within you.
Now, imagine that your heart is a room. See that room inside of you. Compose it, create the image of it in your mind’s eye. Make it the most comfortable room possible. Use your eyes: what is in the room? Is there furniture? What colour are the walls? What covers the floor? Carpet? Tiles? Wood? Something else? Use your ears: what noise, if any, is in this room? Use your nose: what scents fill the room? Remember, this is your room. It can be whatever you want it to be.
Place yourself in the room. See yourself there. Experience yourself there. Are you sitting? Are you standing? Are you lying down? Allow yourself to feel safe, relaxed and comfortable. In your mind’s eye, see Jesus join you in the room. Spend some time now creating this scene. What does he look like? How is his hair? How is his face? How are his eyes? What is his expression? What does he wear? See him there and be wordlessly in his presence. Stay like this for as long as you want.
After a while, bring to Jesus the issue that’s on your mind. Tell him what is troubling you. Tell him about your feelings, about what you or others are suffering at this time. Tell him if you are in despair, if you are angry. Don’t hold anything back, know that you are in a safe space. Spend some time outlining to Jesus exactly where you are stuck, what needs healing, what you are afraid of.
Now, be in his presence again. Know that he will bring all of the trouble to an end. Know that he will bring beauty where there is ugliness. Know that he will bring peace where there is conflict. Know that he will bring consolation where there is desolation. Listen to what he says. Be aware of how he looks at you with utter, unconditional love. Note what he teaches you. When you are ready, focus again on your breath and the movement in your chest. Take three deep breaths and leave this meditation with what you heard and saw in the room of your heart.
Take some time at the end of this meditation to reflect or write down what was significant. Did you get help with the things that bother you? Were you aware of how much God wants to set you free? How does God see you? Specifically focus on the grace or transformation you want, and ask for it if it be God’s will. Spell it out, plead it for yourself. See yourself presenting these difficult things to God, like a pilgrim presenting a burden at the altar. Make it real in your imagination.
Reflect afterwards: how was it to pray with the difficult feelings, staying with them? Don’t expect immediate results or spectacular signs (trust the slow process of the Spirit’s workings). Remember you can revisit this safe place.
Find a quiet place to sit. Read the following scripture piece slowly three times. Each time allow the words to fall on two sets of ears.
Firstly, the ears on your head. Notice your thoughts. Notice words that stand out to you.
Secondly, the ears of your heart. Allow the words to go. Stay with the emotions that come up for you. Particularly, look for emotions that bring consolation. Know that, as the scripture says, “You will have to suffer only for a little while: the God of all grace who called you to eternal glory in Christ will see that all is well again: he will confirm, strengthen and support you.”
After a while, read the scripture piece slowly one more time. This time, allow yourself to draw some conclusions about what God wants you to take away from this reading:
1 Peter 5:5-11
All wrap yourselves in humility to be servants of each other, because God refuses the proud and will always favour the humble. Bow down, then, before the power of God now, and he will raise you up on the appointed day; unload all your worries on to him, since he is looking after you. Be calm but vigilant, because your enemy the devil is prowling round like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat. Stand up to him, strong in faith and in the knowledge that your brothers and sisters all over the world are suffering the same things. You will have to suffer only for a little while: the God of all grace who called you to eternal glory in Christ will see that all is well again: he will confirm, strengthen and support you. His power lasts for ever and ever. Amen
You could try this ritual to mirror your inner processes of meditation and reflecting on scripture. Select a symbol of the person you have lost, something that evokes them strongly, such as a piece of clothing, a photo, a personal item. Make a simple pilgrimage to a place you associate with that person. Carry your symbol with you on this pilgrimage. Walk to a special place, climb a mountain, swim a certain number of lengths in a pool, cycle a route that is special for you. Remember you may not even have to leave the house if Covid 19 restrictions are in place. You could walk intentionally to a room or to a spot in a room in the house that you associate with the person you have lost. Even though this walk may be shorter, still see it as a pilgrimage. And if moving is not possible for you, make a pilgrimage in your mind’s eye to somewhere special.
Once you arrive, physically or mentally, at your destination, prepare a ritual action that has meaning for you, such as holding a photo of the person, writing a grief ‘journal’, remembering some special times with your beloved, or prayerfully honouring their passing by composing a prayer in your own words.
The story of the Passion is one of light triumphing over darkness. Knowing how God works paradoxically in darkness and suffering gives us hope that death is not the end and that God is intimately close in those terrible moments. Let us pray.
God, we know that you are in your essence compassionate; our parent, who is close to the dying, who suffers with and for them, and who is waiting to receive them with the most tender care.
Help us to know that, despite appearances, there is no dying alone, no being abandoned.
We trust that you are most fully present and compassionately involved in shepherding our loved ones into a place of love and peace.
We entrust our bruised and grieving hearts to you and unite ourselves with your Sacred Heart, burning with love for us each day.
O, most Sacred Heart of Jesus, we place all our trust in you; in all, for all and for ever and ever. Amen