Lamentation as a gift — a thought from the Archbishop of Canada


At a recent meeting those present acknowledged that nothing will ever be the same again, even after the urgency of COVID-19 has passed. In that moment we acknowledged aloud that the changes being experienced are deep, profound and in some cases irreversible. With such changes come losses for which we were not prepared, and such losses fill us with anxiety that is also grief.

Our world is familiar with the impact of sudden, devastating grief within living memory. Some remember the impacts of the wars of the last 70 years: World War II, Korea and Afghanistan, to name a few. Most adults today remember the changes brought by 9/11. Some remember the devastation of natural disasters—ice storms, floods or tornadoes—that changed our environment in an instant.

This virus has done the same. A few short weeks ago we were able to carry out daily activities without a thought for the implications of our physical proximity! Now we have a new language that includes social distancing, COVID-19, and PPEs (personal protective equipment). Work patterns have changed or ended. Home life has been transformed. We have lost the familiarity of friends, extended family and colleagues. We cannot eat in restaurants or attend sports events or concerts. School and university graduation ceremonies have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed. Long-planned vacation trips or anniversary celebrations have been cancelled. Conferences, synods and social events have all been knocked off the calendar. Even funerals have drastically altered! Economic security has been wiped out for many, and retirement income has disappeared. The effects are not just individual. We are grieving together, as churches, as communities, as a nation and as the world. We are grieving what has been lost that may be temporary—and grieving in anticipation of what may not return.

There may be gifts embedded in the changes, as some of these changes become part of a new way of living. However, for now, the immediate losses are leaving a deep ache in the soul. We may cover that ache with humour, but underneath we feel a painful and sometimes unadmitted grief. The cause of these losses is out of our control, thrust upon us by circumstances we did not choose. All the signposts of grief are in our midst. Anxiety: “Will I get the virus or pass it on?” Denial: “It will be over in two weeks!” Anger: “Why wasn’t our government prepared?” And bargaining: “If I stay home and am good, it will be over soon.”

The Scriptures contain stories that show us God’s people dealing with just such grief, anger and pain when disaster strikes. One important response is that of lamentation. In North American culture we often try to keep grief as private as possible, but there is wisdom in the practices of cultures where lamentation is public and expected, where grief can be lived with in a new way when it is acknowledged and shared.

The Book of Lamentations, traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah as author, names the grief of the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in a series of poems, and it is graphic.

Cry aloud to the Lord!
O wall of daughter Zion!
Let tears stream down like a torrent
day and night!
Give yourself no rest,
your eyes no respite!

Arise, cry out in the night,
at the beginning of the watches!
Pour out your heart like water
before the presence of the Lord!
Lift your hands to him
for the lives of your children,
who faint for hunger
at the head of every street. (Lamentations of Jeremiah 2:18-19)

The psalmists show us the power of lamentation in their cries to God.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22)

I say to God, my rock,
‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?’
As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
‘Where is your God?’

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me? (Psalm 42:9-11)

It is both appropriate and necessary to name what we have lost and to weep. It is a loss to be reckoned with as we move through the grief to find a place where we can embrace what is now and what might be in the future. Lamentation recognizes something lost: an assumption shattered; a privilege taken away. Grieving begins with the acknowledgement of all that has been lost and continues until a new order of meaning gives us a place to stand. Grief requires that we stop and sit in and with it, first, before pushing through too quickly or pushing it away.

Grief also reveals to us, if we are honest, where we have placed our trust and values that are less than worthy or inconsistent with the faith we profess. When we lament the losses that are self-centred, we see them in light of the bigger picture of our faith and of the world. Lamenting a lack of toilet paper in our grocery stores surely takes a different importance as we see the wider impact of the virus on seniors’ homes, refugees and the homeless. We begin to see the importance of our community in the midst of our isolation and commit to new ways of reaching out. Our lamentation becomes an invitation into repentance and renewed commitments.

Jeremiah and the psalmists who cry so poignantly also are heard to find hope in faith,

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘therefore I will hope in him.’ (Lamentations 3:21-24)

All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22:27-28)

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God. (Psalm 42:12)

So I invite you to sit with the grief that is within you—the sudden change in circumstances and expectations; the events never to be recaptured; and the small everyday expectations upended. Name the grief aloud in prayers and lamentation; write it in a journal; or share it with a friend. Sit with it in silence. Only then read and remember the words of hope and promise our losses are held in the hands of God, whose steadfast love never ceases and in whom we will find life again.