• Caroline Penfield

The Weight of Grief

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

March seems like a lifetime ago. I remember Wednesday, March 11th very clearly, the day the world seemed to stop. In the future, we will tell stories of that second week in March like people tell stories of 9/11. Everyone will know exactly where they were when they started to realize what was happening. Mine was when, amongst the cancellations of major national events, my mom texted my family saying she had stocked up on enough groceries for the next month, including enough for if anyone had to come stay with us. It felt like the apocalypse, and I was just sitting on my dorm room floor packing a suitcase, not knowing how long I’d be gone.

When I left Elon on March 13, I truly didn’t think we’d return for classes that semester, but I hadn’t thought about the effects of what that would mean. I didn’t mind leaving at the time, and despite my apocalyptic feelings a few nights before, a friend and I were off to Texas for a socially distant spring break road trip, although we didn’t know the phrase “social distancing” yet. I was honestly excited to spend a couple weeks at home in Birmingham. I imagined myself catching up with high school friends and doing homework at local coffee shops, walking downtown in between whatever an online class would look like (remember when we didn’t know?). I know this sounds crazy now but it didn’t when the world was bright and everyone was hugging each other goodbye. For the first few weeks, as we learned more, it was frightening, but it also felt like maybe the world was just taking a deep breath. 

At the end of March Chaplain Jan Fuller shared a reflection on grief in which she shared that “Grief is love with nowhere to go.” I wrote this down on a post-it and stuck in on the ledge of my desk where I would sit and work for the next several months in my high school bedroom in my parents’ house in my hometown. At that time I was grieving the loss of the end of my sophomore year as I had expected it, my sense of independence, and the time with my friends at school. I was only beginning to feel the collective grief that I believe has been creeping into our lives since that day in March.

"Grief is love with nowhere to go." -Chaplain Jan Fuller

As case numbers around the world and in the country started to grow, we began to not only grieve the loss of events and expectations but also the loss of those this virus was taking from us. For many, this grief came from watching the death toll tick up on the nightly news or hearing the stories of terror from inside hospitals. For a while, we understood deep loss and we felt for those who were hurting as a community.

This is something I feel in waves now. There are moments where it seems we will never come together and moments when I feel my community or see others leaning on each other (only emotionally of course) to help each other carry the weight this pandemic has placed on us. It is a heavy grief that has altered how we move day to day, how we answer the question, “How are you?,” and how we view what is happening around us.

A mural in downtown Birmingham

I think it was this collective grief that allowed us to feel more strongly the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans murdered by police this summer. It was our vulnerability that forced us to face these feelings as a community. As a white person I can only speak from my perspective, but I think the bravery and vulnerability of those who shared what it feels like to be Black in this country struck a new chord with many white people who had a new understanding of this heavy and constant grief. When Black Americans said, “this is what we feel like every day,” white people began to hear and feel that in a new way. 

As I was starting to process what a communal grief felt like, I was hit with a very personal loss. My grandmother passed away after contracting Covid. I don’t have the words to describe what the loss of that relationship feels like, but I know what it feels like to be one of the many family members left behind from a Covid death. It is not being able to watch the news anymore because you know one of the numbers they are listing is someone you love. It is not being able to hear about front line heroes without thinking of the nurse who was the only person with them in their last moments. It is not being able to separate your own grief from the heaviness of the world, knowing there are so many, too many, people dealing with the same kind of hurt.

In the past couple of months I’ve been trying to lean into the sacredness of grief. One recurring theme in conversations I am having is that despite any timeline a tradition or culture puts on mourning, grief is something that sticks with us, even in moments we think we’ve “moved on.” I can’t even imagine what the end of this pandemic looks like right now, so I can't envision a time where we have all moved on. Racial violence is woven into the fabric of this country, older than any monument or written document. Suggesting that any Black person should move on from the constant grief of seeing your community harmed does it’s own unique kind of harm. Trauma literally plants itself in DNA and is passed down through generations. There is no end to that grieving. I think the sacredness comes in knowing that we have loved something deep enough to feel the loss of it.

In my tradition, we refer to those who have passed before us who we look to for guidance and a path to live a meaningful life as the Communion of Saints. Some traditions hold tightly to the memory of their ancestors. This is a holy practice, to acknowledge the love you still have for something or someone that is no longer with you.

A heavy night in early April

Chaplain Fuller’s words keep coming back to me. “Grief is love with nowhere to go.” I think that there is a beautiful thing in the communal grief we have felt in that it can push us forward. We can more clearly recognize the hurting in our communities and heal it. We can call for justice while acknowledging there are losses we will never replace and holes we will never fill. I don’t think this “fixes” our grief, but I do believe that finding places to send our love makes the load a little lighter.

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