Earlier this week, I went to the cemetery to conduct a thirty-minute outdoor service for one of three church members who have died in the last month. It was as you might expect for death in the time of COVID. We all wore masks. I couldn’t hug the family. We were limited in our time and it was all sad and awful and not what any of us wanted as a way to say goodbye to this person.
On the drive to the pavilion where the service was conducted, I noticed a covered area with big piles of dirt under the roof. It occurred to me that that was the dirt from the graves that had been dug. Somehow in all these years it never occurred to me that there would be extra dirt that would need to go somewhere far from the manicured greenscapes of cemeteries. A hole was dug and something else was put in it. The dirt had no where to go, so they created a place for it.
It feels like grief has nowhere to go these days. Since all this began, my husband has lost an aunt and an uncle (not from COVID.) I have lost an aunt and an uncle (not from COVID.) Eight church members have died. (None from COVID.) Why do I need to say none of these died from COVID? Because it’s a reminder that in the midst of this time of isolation and fear and shouting voices that don’t allow us to hear science, other things are still happening – strokes and cancer and heart attacks and all of it.
And what do we do with the grief? We can’t gather in the sanctuary and tell stories about the dead person and sing the great hymns of faith and remind each other about All The Good Promises About What Happens After We Die. I’m learning that grief is palatable when it can be shared, when the community can lean on each other and right now, none of that is possible and grief has nowhere to go.
Grief just sits there. It doesn’t transform to a paler version of itself. It doesn’t shift into sadness. It doesn’t invite gratitude or perspective. It just sits there, like too much Thanksgiving dinner, like homemade bread whose yeast never activated. Grief just sits there, getting heavier and heavier and becoming insurmountable.
All Saints Day is coming up and worship for that day has been on my mind and my heart. The congregation I serve loves that All Saints service – it’s a time to remember who we are because of who has been with us. It’s a time to name the names of those we miss and grieve. It’s a time to break bread and share the feast and remind each other that the great cloud of witnesses is with us. But not this year.
I wonder if, when we gather properly for worship again, we will have several memorial services or one big one, or a festival of memorials, or some way to commemorate the dead and to have that communal gathering of grief and hope that we’re missing. Or maybe by then it will be too late, and we will have moved on, or we will have lost so many that sorrow will overwhelm.
I do not know. I say that a lot these days, I do not know. I do not know what they do with the dirt left over from the graves. I do not know when COVID will be over. I do not know who else will die in the coming months. I do not know how to mourn all by myself. I do know we were not meant to live this way, in isolation.
So I hold on to that, this new learning about the priceless value of community and seeing each other in real life. We might die alone, that is true. But let’s never give in to living alone.