Grief and Survivor’s Guilt
When people ask me how my family and I are doing these days [May 16, 2020], I answer that we are healthy and comfortable, but that we grieve for the multitude of people whose lives have been overturned, or ripped away, by Covid-19. As Washington Post writer Philip Kennicott states in his May 15 column, “Pain and suffering are no longer isolated or remote or contained; they are universal…” Grief in response to that suffering, combined with survivor’s guilt, has gripped me in a sort of writer’s paralysis for the past several weeks. If you’ll forgive the pun, it seemed wrong to write (right??) from my position of material comfort when so many millions of people are grieving for the loss of their loved ones, their own health, their livelihood, their homes, their sense of security, and myriad long-anticipated major life events and celebrations.
Grief and survivor’s guilt are two of the numerous points of intersection between cancer and Covid-19. Cancer, like Covid-19, leaves a haze of grief and guilt in its wake. Families and friends of deceased cancer patients grieve for the death of their loved ones, and living cancer patients grieve for the loss of their health, often body parts, future plans, and their previous sense of security and normalcy. For example, every time I get a headache nowadays, part of me wonders at least in passing if my breast cancer has spread to my brain. I’m reminded each morning when I get dressed that the body that I had before getting cancer is different than it used to be. At the same time, I realize that my cancer-related inconveniences are a pale shadow compared to the suffering, pain, and loss that so many cancer patients and their families have undergone. This is where the survivor’s guilt comes in.
This is why it was literally a Godsend to hear a recent sermon delivered via Zoom by Luther Memorial Church’s own Pastor Laura, who has radiated a heaven-sent combination of faith, hope, love, and empathy throughout the Covid-19 crisis. (Thank you, Pastor Laura!) In this particular sermon, she chooses to focus on the Psalm for the day, which was Psalm 31. This particular psalm includes such lines as “Be merciful to me, o Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish…”
Pastor Laura seizes on the psalm’s theme of grief, stating:
As Christian people we usually focus on finding joy and sharing gratitude as important spiritual practices, but life in a global pandemic calls for us to dust off and learn the ancient spiritual discipline of lament, so that we may all find a firm footing in the one whom we know holds us secure.
Pastor Laura’s call to lament, or express grief, reminds me that, in addition to the grieving found in the Psalms (including a whole category called the “psalms of lament”), there is an entire book of the Bible called Lamentations. The Bible offers a model not for burying our grief, but for expressing it openly to God. The psalmist doesn’t hesitate to take his grief to God. And, according to the Bible, God listens...and enters into our grief with us. For Christians, Isaiah 53 points to God personified in Jesus: “He was…a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” And this same Jesus does not hold back His own grief when confronted with the death of His friend Lazarus: “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)
Pastor Laura goes on to say, “Lament, firstly, is about joining God in God’s own grief over what’s happening in our lives or in the world right now.” I take great comfort in the God whom Pastor Laura describes as “our safe person on whom we can unload everything from disappointments to primal screams.”
In an article written for Relevant Magazine (September 11, 2019), Melissa Crutchfield points out that processing grief may demand different degrees of patience based on variations in types of suffering and personal temperament. She highlights a commonality, however, among these differences: “But as believers, we know one thing: We can confidently invite the One who endured the ultimate suffering into ours.”
For those of us prone to guilt because we suffer less than another, Crutchfield says, “When we minimize our hurt because we are comparing our suffering with another person’s, we miss out on allowing Christ to meet us in our pain.” My friend Esperanza touched on the subject of guilt in a conversation we had a few days ago. Like me, she acknowledged that she and her family had not suffered from the pandemic in the same way as so many others, adding, “At times, I feel guilty. But then I think that there’s no time for guilt. There’s too much that needs to be done.” Currently she is volunteering her time by training medical interpreters via Zoom.
Just as Esperanza is moving past feelings of guilt and serving others, Pastor Laura reminds us to voice our grief but not to stay stuck there. As she points out, the psalmist in Psalm 31 cries, “I am a broken vessel” but goes on to say, “But I trust in you, o Lord…Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.” Weaving together a host of scriptural promises, Pastor Laura adds:
“[W]e know our Lord will turn our mourning into dancing, our Lord will be our refuge and hide us in the shelter of his wings, our Lord holds our time in the palm of his hands, and our Lord promises that where he is we shall be also, for Christ has gone before us to prepare a place for us.”
Even (especially?) in our grief, we can lean on these promises to become, as Pastor Laura says, “emboldened to turn our whole hearts to God in prayer for ourselves, our community, and the world.”
Psalm 30:5 tells us, “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” We see this hope represented magnificently through a sunrise as seen from the patio of Yorkview Hall at York College. The picture below was taken by York College employee Rachel Myers and is shared with the kind permission of Rachel and the York College Office of Communications. (Thank you!)
Mary Carol, a member of Luther Memorial Church, felt a call to use her gift of writing to offer hope and encouragement to others who may find themselves in times of special need. In addition to teaching Humanities at York College of Pennsylvania, she, along with her husband, is raising two children.