Ascension, Reflectionary

Collective Grieving

I belong to a Facebook group for natives of my hometown, Portsmouth, Virginia, and one of the recurring complaints shared there is the condition of the cemeteries in town. A chorus of commenters chime in to bash whichever city department they hold accountable and hark back to better, to their minds more respectful, days. But each time I remember a spring day in 1993, just after my 67-year-old mother died of metastatic melanoma. My parents had a relatively short time to grapple with her terminal diagnosis, and never having been the best at talking about emotional subjects, they had to also face their lack of a burial plan. My father hoped to be interred in a columbarium at his alma mater; he told me after she died that she had agreed to his preference, and I couldn’t prove otherwise, although it was not a special place to her. The only trouble was the columbarium was under construction. Looking for an alternative, they landed on a family mausoleum at one of those cemeteries in Portsmouth, and I can tell you that in those good old days of the 20th century, the family plot, along with the rest of Oak Grove Cemetery, was a mess, the landscape unkempt, and the gravestones on a tilt. 

Oak Grove Cemetery

We weren’t much for going to the cemetery. My mother thought it was morbid, and she thought the same about remembering the dates when people died, with the result that I have trouble placing the date of her death – the Saturday after Mother’s Day, somewhere in the middle of the teens of May – I can recall that much. 

We kept our grief to ourselves in my family, an impulse I have to battle although I know we – the collective we of humankind – need to grieve when we suffer loss. 

Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

Acts 1:11

The disciples stood staring after Jesus, not only amazed at his supernatural departure, but, I suspect, again bereft. It feels timely, even crucial, to name their grief and give our congregations some space for mourning on this Sunday, whether we observe Ascension on Sunday or take up the overlapping Acts passage for Easter 7. It doesn’t matter that they have seen their Lord or that they trust he is safely with God the Creator, they have lost him and, in the Luke-Acts timeline, await the Spirit without having any idea what that might mean. 

In our communities, we’re also in a strange time, betwixt the old normal and the uncertain future. Whether we are grieving loss of life in our closest circles or mourning the loss of rites of passage or simply our routines, we need a place to put it, particularly if there have been deaths close to home. As Micki McElya writes for The Washington Post, our rituals of mourning serve a purpose. 

This public repertoire includes a range of official and more organic responses; it is sometimes declarative and often ambient. It is always productive — of emotions, communities and common causes.

The pandemic dead have received almost none of this, and the omission is significant — even if the dying is still just beginning. Shared grief brings people together like little else.

Almost 90,000 dead and no hint of national mourning. Are these deaths not “ours?

Those complaints in the Facebook group I mentioned above tend to ramp up at this time of year, as people prepare to take flowers to the graves of their loved ones around Memorial Day. Although I have usually kept references to the holiday to a bare minimum in worship, in the U.S. it offers an opportunity to explore our collective memory and make sure the grief of this unfolding season does not go unmentioned. 

We’re waiting, like the disciples, but without the consolation of gathering together in body. This week, let’s name our collective grief and give people a space in which to hold it together. 

I also wrote about these texts for The Christian Century’s Living By the Word and Sunday’s Coming