In November 2020 it became clear to my husband and me that his mother, Kaye, did not have long to live. After eight years of on-and-off treatment for ovarian cancer, it was now, when we were living halfway across the pandemic-stricken world, that she would breathe her last. We felt powerless, as there was nothing we could do to change travel restrictions or sidestep the viral threat.
Then, in December, her condition deteriorated rapidly. She was hospitalized for two weeks. At that time, the pandemic was at its peak in California and morgues were running out of room. To protect the most vulnerable from the coronavirus and prevent further stress on hospitals that were already at capacity, no visitors were allowed.1 We hated being so far away. We hated that she was alone. We blamed those who did not take seriously restrictions related to COVID-19.
When she was released from the hospital, we were glad she would at least be able to be home with her husband again. But we could not make peace with the separation, with being abroad rather than holding Kaye’s hand as she transitioned. We felt compelled to be with her in her dying hours. But just as my husband began looking for flights from Edinburgh to Los Angeles, my father-in-law cut us off—my husband has a heart condition that could make him especially vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. You have three children, he reasoned with him. Paralyzed between practical constraints and our hearts’ desires, it was clear we had to stay put.
The day after Christmas, when we would typically be getting together with extended family for another Christmas celebration and a visit to the family burial plot, we instead received a video call from my father-in-law. Kaye’s spirit had left her body. He asked if we wanted to see her. We did. We said goodbye to my mother-in-law’s physical presence on this earth via video chat. We wept.
Like many families, we have been forced to grieve from a distance. We felt the helplessness of having sick family members who were isolated at a time when the comfort of loved ones is most needed. We felt the inadequacy of saying goodbye to someone we love via Zoom. We encountered the infuriating necessity of choosing between a virtual memorial or waiting God-knows-how-long for a safe time to be physically present with one another in remembrance. It is a grief that feels impossible to hold.
Mary’s Persistent Grief
I was an ocean away from Kaye at the time of her death. I am still waiting to be able to physically accompany and mourn with our family. That means that I sometimes forget that she is gone. This woman has been one of the central figures in my life for fifteen years; I have taken her existence for granted for so long and am so far removed from her death that I can easily forget she is gone. Then a simple glance at my bag reminds me that I will never see her purse on the chair by the front entrance to her house. I make myself a cup of tea upon returning home from work and remember that I will never share another cup with her again. Being removed from the emptiness of my in-laws’ house without her presence, it is even easier for me to slip into this forgetful denial.
As a Catholic woman whose work has largely focused on Mary the mother of Jesus, my first instinct has been to look to her for guidance in navigating this distanced feeling of trauma. In the Catholic tradition, Mary is called both the cause of our joy, since God would become incarnate through her, and mater dolorosa, or mother of all sorrows, the patroness of grief. Likewise, the early Christian community in which Mary took part was a traumatized community experiencing the continued threats of persecution and death.
It is, of course, important to acknowledge the profound differences between the grief experienced by Mary the mother of Jesus and that of my family, which I will reflect upon here. Jesus’s mother witnesses the death and torture of her child. She then participates in a community in which her son’s friends and she, herself, are vulnerable to persecution. Mary’s grief is the product of physical violence, not illness. However, it is the depths of Mary’s sorrow and helplessness before the political death of her son that ensures her understanding of grief more broadly. Thus, in a Catholic context, the memory of her perspective is reflected upon in times of trial and all manner of grief.
We can imagine, then, that the ordeal of watching her son die, unable to do anything but stand witness, remained with Mary for the rest of her life. If the marks of Christ’s wounds were to remain as part of his resurrected body, we can imagine that Mary’s internal wounding also remained.2 David Schnasa Jacobsen asserts that in resurrecting into new life, Jesus’s experience has not been erased; it is rather “taken up into the purposes of God. Revelation’s final vision in chapters 21–22 includes the wiping away of tears in 21:4. Please note: there will be tears to be wiped away.”3 Thus, the resurrection and the promise of the reign of God do not erase our experiences of suffering; they integrate our suffering into new life and identity in Christ. By choosing to continue to live in community with the disciples, Mary, the mother of Jesus, chose to cultivate relationships with people whose actions would put them at risk of their own cross, including crucifixion, torture, imprisonment, disbanding, and exile. After the death of her son, Mary continued to live in a community that was vulnerable to trauma—this perhaps might seem broadly familiar, as we continue to struggle through years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mary’s presence with the disciples at Pentecost also allows us to imagine her integrating the trauma of her experience of Jesus’s death into a new purpose that allowed her to be in relationship with him in a new way despite his physical absence. While she was formerly able to feel physical closeness and experience their relationship as mother and son in a tangible way, after the ascension and Pentecost, she would now feel his presence through the Holy Spirit, particularly in the mutual care she finds in relationship with his friends and the mission of the early church. However, according to Judith Herman, integration like this can take place only if grief has been given its due.4 If, following suffering, we are to cultivate a sense of reconnection to our daily routines, personal worth, and purpose, grief must be honored as it inevitably resurfaces and evolves. Thus, Mary could have found life after trauma only by creating a space for her grief.
Despite physically appearing to the disciples and sharing meals with them numerous times prior to the ascension, Jesus could not be present as a son to his mother in the same way he would have been prior to his death. Thus, while Mary must have experienced reassurance, meaning, and a new way of communing with Christ through the Holy Spirit, there were still innumerable little deaths. We can imagine her ongoing grief at not being able to muss his hair when he says something cheeky, to hear his laugh from another room, to feel his embrace, his smell. Nor does Christ’s resurrection erase the betrayal of his close friends, the violent public spectacle of his death, or the power taken from her as a mother who aches to console and protect her child. One can only imagine the layers of anger and grief. Even when new life is found after trauma, grief remains.
I find myself wondering whether she and Joseph questioned how they raised Jesus, whether they worried that they set him on a path that would inevitably lead to the cross. Was she angry at herself? At Jesus? At Peter? Did she relive the horrors of standing witness to her son’s death in her nightmares? Prior to Pentecost, could she speak beyond the wails of mourning? How long was it before she could eat again? Or sleep? In these ways, we can imagine Mary’s grief being wide ranging, encompassing both the death of little things, like watching him eat his favorite meal, and the horror of his passion. We can also imagine that the remaining of this grief was heightened at particular times, such as when young followers of the Way were persecuted.5 Once again she would need space to grieve in order to continue finding new meaning in communion with the early church. Thus, it seems that Mary and the larger community of disciples were able to carry on the work of Christ because they allowed themselves to grieve. Indeed, early ecclesiology was likely an ecclesiology of grief. To whatever extent trauma was present, such grief would arguably have been an important aspect of the life of such a community.
Although we may find ourselves alienated from our church communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe we can draw a sense of solidarity from first-century Christians, who knew in a special way the identity crisis of what it means to be a church when gathering as a community is neither safe nor possible. Despite the joys of the resurrection, this was a community who had the horrors of the crucifixion seared in their collective consciousness even as they struggled with vulnerability to ongoing trauma. Jacobsen thus argues that early Christian texts may be viewed as responses to grief, trauma, and crisis.6
The book of Acts testifies to this, stating:
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went (Acts 8:1–4, NIV).
1 Peter, too, begins with a greeting rooted in exilic experiences vulnerable to trauma: “To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1:1). The words exile and scattered are pregnant with tales of persecution. Donald Senior notes that Christians were considered exiles not only because they have in many cases been driven out of their home communities due to persecution but also because of their historical status as a fringe minority group. He further notes that by using exile as an identifier, the author is making an eschatological claim—“the end of all things is near” (1 Pet. 4:7) and, thus, one’s true home is not the place of one’s birth, which is temporal, but one’s place in Christ.7
In this unity with Christ, members of the early church stumbled upon a way to find meaning while mourning the physical absence of their friend. This pattern was then replicated as they experienced grief related to the martyrdom of their fellow community members. Holding grief as a communal experience as members of Christ’s body allowed the early Christians to feel supported in their grief even when persecution caused their community to disband. Thus, we can imagine that when Mary hears of the death of another one of her son’s friends, this new death is tied to that of her son, which may reawaken her trauma while also serving as a reminder that their community is one whose Spirit cannot be divided by distance, imprisonment, or even death. Their union is found in her risen son. This does not mean a lessening of grief but a sharing of its weight.
Deanna Thompson calls this distended membership of the body of Christ a virtual phenomenon. The virtuality of shared Christian experience is, to her, exemplified in Paul’s letters. She explores how the Pauline letters were meant to be read as a church community, such that through his written word and their prayers, Christ may still be present to them. In 1 Corinthians, Paul states, “For though absent in body, I am present in spirit,” (1 Cor. 5:3). Thompson further points out that such virtual networks, whether cultivated through letters, word of mouth, remembering those afar in prayer, or taking part in hearing shared testimony, mark the beginning of the church’s growth. Thus, even when unable to celebrate or mourn with friends and family, the joys, sorrows, and traumas of Christians in one area were held in common with those in another. Most importantly, mourning is not simply something the churches did but one of the manners in which the identity of the church was cultivated.8
In the Catholic tradition, it is taught that Mary the mother of Jesus was already a widow by the time of Jesus’s passion. As a widow and the mother of Jesus, she would have had a particular role within the early Christian community. Along these lines, Margaret Macdonald discusses the essential contributions of women to the identity of the nascent church through individual and communal acts of accompaniment, noting that by the second century widows had formed communities within their local churches, taking it upon themselves to bring food and comfort following deaths, persecution, and imprisonment.9 Mary and her sisters in Christ would have cradled the trials, grief, and hope of the community and offered prayers of lament, “crying out or groaning for deliverance [to] a God who hears and promises to deliver, even while he (sic) may delay in acting.”10 In this way, Mary the mother of Jesus would have experienced grief not only passively, as something which overtook her, but also actively, as a ministry. She and other widows would have chosen to express the grief of the community. Thus, lament is required for the individual and the community in order for new life to be found. Creating space, lamenting, and offering up grief prior to a simple moving on is the historically Christian response.
Holding and expressing grief from a distance would have become especially important as exile, imprisonment, and martyrdom increased. It is unlikely, for example, that martyrs such as James the brother of John had their families present when they were killed. Nor is it likely that care was given to the bodies of martyrs like James. We can imagine that those who loved him, his family and Mary the mother of Jesus, heard of this news only after it had happened and from a great distance. We are told only that the popularity of James’s execution inspires officials to seize Peter as well, uniting the church in all its distant fragments in prayer on his behalf (see Acts 12:1–5).
Unity in Fragmentation
In their article “Fragments from within the Pandemic,” Katie Cross, Clare Louise Radford, and Karen O’Donnell begin to describe how a continued demand for productivity is at odds with the way in which COVID-19 has ruptured our daily experience, but as they attempt to make meaning in their writing, they find their speech to be fragmented. This fragmentation, they suggest, is a consequence of preexisting patterns of injustice that have been exacerbated by the ongoing stresses of the pandemic.11 And it is a fragmentation that I recognize in my own life.
My mother and her friends are fully vaccinated and have begun seeing each other in person again. Children are talking to their friends at school. And after a long winter, cafés, restaurants, and shops have reopened their doors. We are slowly rejoining the web of in-person communities and relationships that give us life. And yet when I first drafted this essay, the coronavirus had killed over 540,000 US residents, and the social upheaval that has accompanied the pandemic has brought about an increase in targeted race- and gender-based attacks. We continue to be pummeled with news of social calamity such that there is always something to grieve on either the macro level or in our own local communities. We have the masks and the war over mask requirements to remind us that all is not right. And interwoven with the joy of once again being able to touch those we love is the grief for those who are missing, for those who we never got to give a proper goodbye, for those like my mother-in-law, Kaye.
And despite the more than 5 million deaths caused by COVID-19 and the jarring loss of Kaye’s passing, I still had a thesis to write, conference papers to turn in, and meetings to attend. I faithfully completed these tasks, but my mind was elsewhere. I started projecting this desire for nonproductivity on my colleagues. Surely, I could not be the only one thinking that everything should be canceled? That for at least a month everyone should stop? No papers. No conferences. No obligations other than getting through the day with our children. Nothing to do but bake bread, garden, breathe, cry, and mourn our dead and our world as it was prior to COVID-19. Of course, most of us do not live in a society where such a reality is possible given the existing socioeconomic structures. Even at the start of the pandemic, heeding the advice to stay at home was the luxury of those who could work from their computer and the upper middle class.
There was one place where my family’s grief was honored and not papered over by the implicit demands for productivity—my online weekly Bible study group. This became a space for sharing loss, joy, and frustration, for finding opportunities to meet each other in our struggles. For being the church. Like Mary the mother of Jesus, and the widows of the early Church, this small community of women provided the space for communal mourning, even when we could not be physically present to one another.
The distended experience of grief caused by the pandemic has also manifested as a mourning within our mourning, as we grieve over our ability to mourn in the manner of our choosing. As such, the space my family has needed for grieving has largely been in the acknowledgement of our fundamental need to grieve over Kaye’s passing, over the fact that we have not been able to physically tend to our family in the United States or be tended by them at this time. The space for this grief was created by those in our virtual community through their prayers and when they checked in on our needs and emotional well-being. Every meal delivered to us by friends created space for our family to take comfort in one another without having to perform, without doing. We could nourish our bodies without laboring to create a meal. Every baked good brought to our doorstep and card we received was a reminder that our sense of loss was seen and should not be eclipsed by society’s desire that all remain as it was.12 Perhaps more importantly, it empowered me to say no to the forces or thoughts that demanded I ignore grief in the name of carrying on. It helped me to spot the lie in equating the continuation of meaningful work with ignoring my need for pause.
Herman notes that it is common for mourning and remembrance to be avoided when we fear we might fall into a pit of despair from which we might never climb out. She also notes that while we cannot predict how long a period of mourning may last, particularly as grief is something that ebbs and flows rather than starting and stopping, it is nevertheless necessary to mourn if we are to integrate our loss after a traumatic experience.13 Being encouraged to mourn, to pause, to reflect, and to honor feelings of loss has helped me integrate my loss and allowed me to acknowledge that need in others. I have begun to search for opportunities to meet others in their grief, making space for their own need to pause, to feel sorrow, to honor the mourning within their mourning. Like Mary the mother of Jesus, we thus find ourselves entrusting our grief to those around us who acknowledge its validity and persistence while also nursing the suffering and losses of others. In giving grief its due, we lessen the risk of superficial happiness veiling over repressed sorrow. And because we have created a space for feeling the ache of loss in virtual community, we can also share in each other’s joys.
Today, as I write this essay, I am in the final days of Lent. I look forward to celebrating the promise of the resurrection this coming Sunday. I look around me and see a reflection of Christ in the springtime flowers and the return of longer days. COVID-19 persists in new mutated forms, but vaccines provide an Easter hope. Perhaps now we can begin to address the new vulnerabilities caused by the pandemic, to address the racial, environmental, socioeconomic, and gender-based injustices that have now become more obvious.14 Attempting this work means cautiously treading back into the world of in-person relationships outside of the family home, and I suspect we will experience both a sense of newness and a sense of loss, for the world we are breaking back into is a new one in which the effects of this pandemic will play out in the coming weeks, months, and generations. By acknowledging our grief, we can cultivate a space to mourn and open ourselves up to including it as part of our story, just as grief became a new part of Mary’s story. Coming back to the world to find it changed will mean that my grief over Kaye and our grief over our lives as they were prior to the pandemic will likely resurface and transform. To take part fully in this new life will thus mean a continued openness to remembrance and to resurfacing grief. Indeed, the persistence of Jesus wounds, Mary’s trauma, and our remembrance of this suffering is integral to the sharing of the gospel. Our church waits in joyful hope because we share grief in community.
- Sam Levin, “California Reaches 25,000 Coronavirus Deaths during Deadliest Month Yet,” Guardian, December 30, 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/30/california-coronavirus-record-deaths-los-angeles.
- For Catholic terms for Mary, see Jaroslav Pelikan Jesus through the Centuries; Mary through the Centuries (New York, NY: History Book Club, 2005), 17–19 and 125–36; for Mary’s trauma related to the crucifixion, see Shelly Rambo and Catherine Keller, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 15.
- David Schnasa Jacobsen, “Preaching as the Unfinished Task of Theology: Grief, Trauma, and Early Christian Texts in Homiletical Interpretation,” Theology Today 70, no. 4 (January 2014): 413, https://doi.org/10.1177/0040573613506732.
- See Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2015), 207 and 188; as well as Acts 1:14.
- See Rambo and Keller, Spirit and Trauma; also see Acts 7–9.
- Jacobsen, “Preaching as the Unfinished Task,” 407–16.
- Donald Senior, “1 Peter Commentary,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2003), 2183 and 2187. Also see 1 Corinthians 15:40; Philippians 2:10 and 3:19; and Andrew Hassler, “Glimpses of Lament: 2 Corinthians and the Presence of Lament in the New Testament,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 9, no. 2 (Fall 2016): 164–75, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F193979091600900203.
- See Deanna Thompson, “The Virtual Body of Christ and the Embrace of Those Traumatized by Cancer,” in Post-Traumatic Public Theology, ed. Shelly Rambo and Stephanie Arel (London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), Kindle, loc. 445–47 and 447–48; and Hassler, “Glimpses of Lament,” 175.
- See Margaret MacDonald. “The Religious Lives of Women in Early Christianity,” in Women’s Biblical Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 646.
- Hassler, “Glimpses of Lament,” 175.
- See Katie Cross, Karen O’Donnell, and Louise Radford, “Fragments from within the Pandemic: Theological Experiments in Silence, Speech, and Dislocated Time,” Practical Theology 14, no. 1–2 (2021): 5, https://doi.org/10.1080/1756073X.2020.1861802.
- The concept of trauma as a form of rupture or disruption is taken from Karen O’Donnell, Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary, and the Body in Trauma Theology (London, UK: SCM, 2018), 6.
- Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 188.
- Cross, O’Donnell, and Radford, “Fragments from within the Pandemic,” 5; Zaheena Rasheed, “Our Lives after the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Al Jazeera, March 26, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/3/26/our-lives-after-the-coronavirus-pandemic.