by Kristen Glass Perez
This year, what I thought Lent would look like on Ash Wednesday, has radically changed. I serve as a college chaplain at one of the ELCA colleges. With the reality of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it seems as if we are all in this period of adjusting to an evolving landscape that seems to shift by the hour.
Like many of you, my work and life have changed. In both higher education and the church, we have had to figure out what to do in the middle of great upheaval.
In that spirit, I would like to share with you a few of my reflections during this unprecedented time. They are filtered through my own life experience with the death of my husband.
Life changed instantly
Javier died in August of 2017. He was 42 years old. It was sudden and unexpected. I was visiting France when he died, preparing to lead a student trip there the following year. The last conversation Javier and I had was an international phone call about ordering from Amazon. At the time, I didn’t know it would be our last conversation. As you might imagine, life as I knew it changed instantly. When I arrived home, exhausted, devastated and jet-lagged to plan for his funeral, the items he ordered for us were waiting. It was the welcome home I never wanted, but also one that I clung to; a glimpse of normal life that was gone forever.
The academic year started two weeks after his funeral. I went back to work—because that’s what I needed to do—for very tangible reasons and also because it is what I needed to do. I had no idea what I was going to do. How was I going to make it through my role as one who does public proclamation and tends to the life issues of young adults?
All I could do, was what I knew how to do. I sat with my student leadership team and with tears streaming down my face I said, “I don’t know how to be your pastor without showing you how sad I am; so just know that it is ok to talk about Javier and to say his name and that you are going to help me figure this out.”
I also wept while leading worship. And, you know what? Nobody cared. I don’t mean that in a callous way—but nobody expected me to act as if nothing had happened. That’s what I was worried about. How do I pretend that nothing has happened? It turns out, you can’t act as if nothing has happened. It’s impossible.
The familiar process of grief
Recently, the Harvard Business Review published an article describing the collective experience of the coronavirus as grief. It resonated deeply with me and I found myself sharing it widely with others. I realized why the COVID-19 crisis felt familiar to me. Even though the circumstances are different, the process feels like the grief process.
I have felt tired, confused, disoriented and angry. I have felt sad and disbelieving. I have wondered about strange things that I think maybe shouldn’t matter. This is the grief process and it cannot be skipped or avoided. It is not enough to move our regular routines online and pretend as if nothing has happened. It doesn’t work that way.
My own experience with grief has taught me, that in a time of complete upheaval, the only way through it is through it. That means you can’t go around it, and you can’t avoid it. It also means you must name it.
I have also learned that I will never be “over” it. It has changed who I am. I learned that to live out my daily life as Pastor Kristen, college chaplain, was to not pretend as if life was the same. It wasn’t. It isn’t. It will never be the same again. Two and a half years later, I don’t always weep during the regular rhythms of my life and work anymore—but sometimes I do.
In her book, “It’s Ok that You’re Not Ok,” Megan Devine writes: “Some things cannot be fixed; they can only be carried.” We will not be the same after our experience with the coronavirus. There are some things that will not ever return to the way that they were. In order to process that, we can’t simply zoom into a new way of life without naming our collective grief.
I also know that the secondary losses that come with any sort of loss are very real. Secondary losses are those things that have gone away as a result of the primary loss. In the same way that I grieve every day for the loss of the potential for Javier’s life and my life, I also grieve for all of the lost opportunities in the world right now. Like many people, I feel devastated by the very real physical, social and emotional toll the coronavirus will cause including the loss of human life.
I also feel sadness for the class of 2020 and all of the students and teachers who won’t be able to accomplish what they need to; the lost performances, athletic competitions, ceremonies and celebrations.
I find myself, again, wondering if other people are wondering if they are supposed to act like nothing is different or we all know what to do. I want to be able to say out loud that nobody knows what to do and some things cannot be fixed—they can only be carried. That’s what we are doing.
A few other things I have learned about grief:
I have learned that I am hyper-sensitive about the danger of a single story as so beautifully described by Chimamanda Adichie in her TedTalk. I never want the single story of Javier’s life to be his death; nor do I want it to be the single story of my life. Instead, there are many other things I wish for people to know and remember about him. I sometimes say that his death was the least important part of his life and yet on that day, my life rebooted.
And so—it’s still a part of the story. The single-story of the class of 2020 won’t be the novel coronavirus but it also will not, not be a part of their story. The single-story of our communities will not be this illness—but it and our response to it, certainly will become a part of our evolving story.
I have learned that we don’t have to make good from bad. We don’t need tragedy to become better versions of ourselves; better physicians, better professors, better poets, better planners, better pastors, better people. It is not enough to look for the “why of God” in these times of tragedy. Instead, we look for the “who of God” in Jesus who accompanies us, weeps with us, worships with us and searches with us. And yet—goodness and betterness will emerge. In the midst of tragedy, God is present and love is still revealed.
This was highlighted for me recently as I sorted through items donated to the on-campus food pantry at the college where I serve as pastor. I found handwritten notes on several packages of ramen noodles from students left for other students that said, “you are not alone.” Those notes are like the spring bulbs that insist on popping up in my yard—bright spots of yellow and purple—in and through the pandemic. Those notes remind me when I need to be reminded- that relationship trumps doctrine—at every level. Those notes remind me that even though this wasn’t what I planned for Lent to look like, Easter will still come. Those notes are insistent reminders of resurrection. During this time, we will rely on people to carry us—maybe those we never imagined. The package delivery worker who once reminded me only of death, now reminds me of hope. It’s not what I expected, but it’s what is happening now. In a situation that we didn’t choose, may we find ways to continue to carry one another during this time.
Loving God, thank you for all of the reminders of your persistent love in a world that desperately needs it. In times of upheaval and uncertainty, help us to be present in our lives and our communities as they really are, not only as we wish they were. In a time when we must be physically distant, help us to see and respond to the needs of others even as we see and respond to our own needs. Amen.
1. When did the coronavirus crisis become real for you?
2. What is a secondary loss that you are grieving?
3. Where have you seen signs of resurrection in the world during the crisis?
The Rev. Kristen Glass Perez serves as College Chaplain at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. Egner Chapel at Muhlenberg College is the home of the first WELCA Campus Unit.