On this past March 23rd, Scott Berinato interviewed the foremost expert on grief, David Kessler, in an article titled: That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief. Kessler’s comments hit a public nerve at the unsettling confluence of a lack of feeling safe today amid a lack of a sense of hope for tomorrow. Except for specific accounts in medical and personal journals of the 1918 Spanish Flu, that pandemic is often referred to like a pin inserted on a map. We recall it now as an event fixed securely within the constraints of time; the dangerous memory of two generations previous shielded us from much of its cost.
Yet in the fall of 1918, newspapers from Kelowna, British Columbia to Freetown, Sierra Leone, noted similar societal adjustments to our own. Motion picture houses and theatres, and schools and public gatherings, are closing. The byline in Mobile Alabama read: “Must Quit Kissing!” on October 8, 1918. And, even given the terrible conditions of being caught upon a New Zealand troop transport ship returning from WWI, a young soldier, well aware of a pandemic onboard, notes in his journal: “This morning we had a lecture for half an hour … and was a most idiotic lecture too. Had no object in it that I could see.”(1). Some things are a constant no matter the condition.
Pandemics teach us about ourselves. Medications have advanced but health systems can be unprepared and fragile. We are more vulnerable than we thought. And, we also witness remarkable displays of moral courage by those who serve at the vanguard against a virus in hospitals and clinics, emergency rooms and intensive care units. Every catastrophe will require essential human beings like these medical professionals. They leave their families and friends in order to serve, and with significant unnecessary risk. And now. This is grim yet singular selflessness we are seeing today. There are first responders around the world who place the well-being of others before themselves. Today in New York at the Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, and hospitals across the world, these medical personnel arrive and serve under duress, and increasingly thousands of volunteers are signing up to join their colleagues, or provide resources, in order to press forward.
Grief makes us deeply uncomfortable, notes Kessler. Loss of life, loss of loved ones, loss of a job, loss of normalcy; we grieve as individuals and as a collective. Today we do not grieve alone. And this is perhaps why so many people, following the Berinato article, are talking about grief this week, and acting for the shared good. Grieving takes courage. It allows us to go deep and to work creatively with renewed sensitivity to colleagues. It enables us to assume something of the interior experience of others around us at this moment in time. It cultivates both determination and surrender at the same moment. It accompanies loss and runs deep whenever we remember who and what we loved.
And it helps us to remember that each of us has a role to play alongside social distancing, which appears to be our global byline today. We require a resilient capacity for spiritual and reflective proximity – to ourselves, to our loved ones, to those in our communities, to those we’ll never meet. Grief will be a force that teaches us how to get through this together because in the face of the horrible we can aim not to be separate, even as we are apart.
The Center team continues to work remotely, but together. We are developing resources and content that aim to assist in the weeks and months ahead. We have confirmed that Arun Gandhi will join us on the university campus in April, 2021; and, we are committed to welcoming scholars for the symposia on gratitude and grief within society in the 2020-2021 academic year.
And finally, we are rooting for a shared future with you as we cherish the efforts of so many at STM, in the university, and within society at the present.
Dr. Michael Reid Trice, PhD serves as the Director of the Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs, and is an Associate Professor of Constructive Theology at Seattle University. He is a scholar, speaker, and writer in his fields. Trice is also the Co-Founder of the Religica Theo Lab (theological laboratory) that is a site of engagement for students, faculty and society in order to test the hypotheses regarding the manifold role of religion in public life. Dr. Trice served as the Secretary for the Parliament of the World’s Religions from 2016-2019, and provides leadership on the Interfaith and Faith and Order commissions of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA; he has served on international boards including Church World Service.