America in Grief
by Elle Berry | 17 July 2020 |
As darkness fell over the upper-left United States on the evening of July 4th, I was summoned to the front porch by the sounds of holiday percussion. I stood staring into the night, the full moon silhouetting poplars, evergreens, and the mountain peaks of neighborhood rooftops. Here and there firecrackers lit up the sky as my nephew danced about the driveway, filled with the innocent enthusiasm of childhood. America was, after all, celebrating her two hundred and forty-fourth birthday.
I find myself stumbling over the word celebrate, because it hardly captures the mood of the moment. Yet, despite everything going on in the world, for at least a few minutes I felt what I often feel on the 4th of July. My patriotic feelings are never a simple infatuation so much as they are a nuanced love story. Much like a wedding vow, America remains a beautiful aspiration.
Unless you’ve somehow avoided all media content for the last six months, you’ve likely noticed that America seems to be going through something. Perhaps we’ve been going through something for a while, but there’s no denying it’s accelerated. With every news cycle—from presidential impeachment, to coronavirus, to racial injustice—every loop seems to polarize us deeper into our binaries, and propel us further into our anxieties. There is nothing that we won’t politicize and weaponize for the culture wars. To watch America right now is to experience nearly every stage of the Kübler-Ross grief checklist simultaneously. Like fireworks, our emotions vent upwards in explosions of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. I say nearly every stage, because the so-called final stage of grief, acceptance, is nowhere to be found.
Mourning is the natural metabolizing of grief. But as a culture, we’ve never been particularly good at mourning. Perhaps part of the problem is that regardless of how many of us may be familiar with the aforementioned stages of grief, most of us continue to recognize grief only when it manifests as sorrow. But as Kübler-Ross rightfully reasoned, grief often presents with more complex symptoms. Sometimes it shows up as anger, anxiety, fear, and dread, and at other times as depression, denial, and despondency. Grief can be chronic, anticipatory, complicated, and disenfranchised. But whatever form it takes, when we fail to recognize grief for what it is, it becomes impossible to mourn.
America has no shortage of fuel for our grief bonfire right now. As I write, more than 135,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. That is over 135,000 human lives lost, and over 135,000 families and friends who are actively grieving unexpected loss. While we are not particularly good at grief in this country, death is one area where we have managed to maintain a marginal social framework. Yet in the age of coronavirus even our normal grief rituals for death have been interrupted, as many people are unable to follow any kind of blueprint for burial. This has affected not only the COVID-19 related deaths. Anyone who has lost someone in the last six months has had to deal with grief-interrupted.
Beyond the obvious losses of death, few of us remain unaltered by the last few months. Most of us are to some degree suffering with the social and economic repercussions the pandemic has brought. Thousands have lost jobs or taken pay cuts. All of us have lost routines, and most of us have struggled to some degree with isolation, uncertainty, and fear. While compared with death these losses may certainly seem trivial, they still gnaw at us.
And all this would be enough to process by itself, but like a bad infomercial 2020 keeps bringing the “But Wait!” Adding onto a year already heavy in burdens, the violent murder of George Floyd ripped once again at one of America’s oldest unhealed wounds: racial injustice. Everything has continued to pile on, and thus hoping in the future right now seems like building a house along the San Andreas fault line: the question is not if the earth will shake again, but when, and for how long?
All of this is made worse by how we struggle to give name to, or sometimes even recognize, certain kinds of grief. We think, why is everyone so angry? Why are they buying into conspiracy theories? Why are they unreasonable? Why are they marching? Why have they lost their minds? But the truth is they, and we, are all doing what people do when they are in trauma and grief-interrupted. Perhaps the hardest part of this season is to understand that much of what we are seeing in America is a manifestation of our struggle to make sense of our losses, and explain how we got here.
One of the icky parts of grief is the way it often gets knotted up in trauma. There is a certain amount of change and loss that we expect in life. While many of those changes and losses will lead us to grief, they are not always traumatic. But it is also true that change and loss often do result in trauma. When I say trauma, I am defining it as author Bessel van der Kolk does in The Body Keeps the Score. He notes that trauma is an event that overwhelms the central nervous system, and in doing so it changes the way we process information and recall memories. For someone who is traumatized, an event remains present in the now, meaning that it is very difficult to process through what has happened and move into the future. They become stuck.
Furthermore, van der Kolk found in his research that trauma affects a region in the left frontal lobe called Broca’s area. This area of the brain is associated with producing speech and language-based communication. Trauma actually shuts down people’s ability to verbally express what they are experiencing. The more traumatized an individual is, the more they may struggle to communicate that experience.
As van der Kolk writes, “Trauma by nature drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience.” One of the downfalls of the Kübler-Ross grief rubric is that it makes us think we can progress through mourning in a neat linear fashion. But the deeper we go into trauma, the more likely it is that we will not move through an experience, but rather become stuck in rumination, unable to process our grief or to communicate the emotional experience that is driving our actions.
Presently, America seems stuck somewhere between grief-interrupted and the traumas of our past. Yet, instead of recognizing what’s happening as grief so that we can attempt to mourn and heal, we instead leap past our mourning like a lover scorned. A nation constantly on the rebound, we latch onto the next news cycle, numbing our fears, and quenching our anxieties with yet more denial, bargaining, and outrage. We numb with busyness, food, consumerism, work, food, sex, and doing-good. We numb because we do not see, and because we do not want to see.
The hardest part of mourning is that it requires us to admit that something went wrong. And while we claim to be a nation of personal accountability, we often refuse the accountability of looking inward. To mourn requires deep introspection. It requires that we vulnerably face our inability to control all outcomes. Furthermore, it seems clear from the Bible that these seasons are not experiences that God shields His people from—not even Jesus. Perhaps this is because mourning is a sacred work.
When we admit something has gone wrong and enter into that vulnerability, there is an opportunity for us to be our truest selves. It is a place to name not only how we were betrayed by this world, but also to become clear on what we expected from the world. We get to ask questions about who we were being in those expectations, and whether our expectations and hopes were placed in the right place. Mourning is sacred ground because it requires our deepest authenticity before God.
If America wants to heal our racial wounds, move past our political divisions, and heal our pain, then we must find a way to process our trauma, we must move through our grief, and we must be willing to enter the sacred work of mourning. Until we do so, these rumination cycles will continue.
Perhaps what is most disappointing is that the church in America has not been a leader in this work. The church should be the place most willing to look inward, and the place most willing to support each of us as we do the same. This is not always the case. We prefer to bounce from Christmas to Easter, forgetting that to have birth you must first labor, and to have resurrection you must face the crucifixion. Lament and mourning, blood and labor, are a sacred right in a world that is wounded. In this world the glory always comes by way of the mess.
Trevor Hall writes, “You can’t rush your healing. Darkness has its teachings. Love is never leaving. You can’t rush your healing.” As people of the resurrection life, it is for us to live our calling and become experts in recognizing trauma and grief so that when we see people stuck in the patterns we become a refuge for the hurting, and a sanctuary where people can mourn, rather than an escape pod facilitating their denial. As the church we need to be the people who are known for doing our own mourning, so that we can also be the people who are there for the traumatized and the grieving. As the church we must remember that mourning is a sacred calling, and above all, there is a time to mourn.
Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com.