PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — A Time To Grieve

I watched the “Graduate Together” celebration of the Class of 2020 this weekend and truly enjoyed the efforts to highlight and rejoice with those students who will not get a traditional graduation ceremony this year.

However, I must admit to having a little bit of trepidation about the efforts to place a Band-Aid on the consequences of COVID-19 and those who are losing out on long hoped for times of festivities, ceremonies and rituals.

It sort of reminds me of what some people do when someone dies — they try to make it better immediately by saying things like, “Don’t grieve, they are in a better place.”

So today, I want to say to all of you who are mourning the loss of something to which you had been looking forward with great anticipation. Grieve.

And to those who are with people who are facing those losses, let them grieve. Let them mourn. Don’t wrap them with false-sounding platitudes like, “You won’t even remember this in the future. I don’t remember my graduation” or pretend that shallow substitutes like watching a televised graduation ceremony or a car ride through town with people cheering make up for the loss they are experiencing.

I am not critiquing people and communities who are doing amazing things to try to make the best of a rough situation. I have seen photos of families having proms in their living rooms, weddings with just a few family members while it is put on Facebook live and the parents of cap-and-gown wearing students transforming a living room into a mock graduation. I’ve heard stories of schools going above and beyond to try to honor their graduates in nontraditional ways. Those are acts of love that can be received with grace and gratitude.

But we are pretending if we think that these pale imitations make up for what is lost by those who had been filled with anticipation for a grand celebration. And minimizing the loss is not helpful.

LIfe is filled with enough sorrow and pain that we deserve to revel in the once-in-a-lifetime moments of pure joy, like a graduation or a wedding. And when that is snatched away, it is hard and it is painful. And sadly, they often can’t be replicated. So we need to allow those who are hurting to grieve.

I know my son never expected to graduate from Harvard on Zoom in our living room, the first class in 369 years not to have a formal graduation. They will have a celebration next year, but it won’t be the same and I’m not going to pretend it will be.

Yes, I can say a lot of things to “try to make it better” or put it in perspective or minimize it in the scope of life. But I won’t because I think it is important to grieve. To name a loss. And allow oneself to feel the pain.

As a mom who has done everything in my life to try to ameliorate my sons’ pain when they have been placed in some horribly unfair situations that were not of their own making, I admit that is hard. Every fiber in this mother’s body wants to “make it better.” But sometimes, you just can’t.

So we need to allow people the chance to mourn.

In a society that has forgotten what it means to lament, it is important to reclaim it so that we can move through it. One of the quotes used in the “Graduate Together” really hit home. James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

I think that is why grieving is important. We need to face what is lost in order to move past it. We need to feel the pain and the hurt and not try to mollify it or diminish it. Otherwise, we can get stuck in a suspended animation when we pretend things aren’t hard and then never really deal with them.

As a pastor who has presided at literally hundreds of funerals, I wish more people would learn to wail and cry out at death, rather than stuffing it down. There is a reason the Bible talks about crying out in pain and why people wear sackcloth and ashes when they mourn. They do it to feel the anguish, to name the sorrow and to surround themselves with it so that when the time comes, they can move past it.

I remember once on my internship, over 30 years ago, I was really upset about something and I was expressing my emotions and someone tried to mollify me. In what was then an unusual response for me I blurted out, “Let me be angry.”

Those words resonated in my soul and in many ways changed my life. They were a way for me to articulate and truly feel my emotions. Let me feel what I am feeling so that I can move through it — so I can face it.

This isn’t about wallowing in it or getting emotionally stuck in a place where one plays the martyr or victim, feeling sorry for oneself for a time without end. But in order to get past it, you need to face it first. That is why there is a set time for wearing sackcloth and ashes. You grieve and then you move forward.

So let them grieve. Grieve yourself. And know that we have a God who knows what it is to wail and cry out. Of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, nearly 30 percent are devoted to lamentations and cries of sorrow.

We are told in the Psalm 34:18 that, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” Words of comfort, yes, but words that permit us to be brokenhearted and crushed in spirit. To spend some time there first so that we can be lifted out of the pit when the time comes.

I admit, it is uncomfortable to deal with grief — our own and others. It is heavy and hard and painful. But it is real. And we are called to carry one another’s burdens, not avoid them.

So to those of you who are mourning a loss caused by COVID-19, name it, feel it, cry out and own the pain. And know God is with you in your sorrow and when the time comes will carry you to the other side.

We can’t make it better but we can love you enough to let you deal with it.


O God who knows our pain, be with all who mourn and feel loss during this time of pandemic. Help them to know that you are with them in their sorrow and that you understand sadness and sorrow. Allow us to bring all of our emotions to you, knowing that you are a God who wants our whole hearts. Help us to find in you peace that only comes when we are honest with you and with ourselves, finding healing only when we first accept the hurt and leave it with you. In the name of your son, who knew and embodied brokenness before he experienced Resurrection, we pray.  Amen.

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