We’ve spent more than a year grieving in isolation and participating in memorial services and funerals via live internet feeds. While it was the best that we could do under extraordinary circumstances, it was by no means a reasonable substitute. Logging in to attend such a service made us observers, viewers behind curtains that never parted. We could watch but we certainly weren’t participating. These online replacements for rituals designed to be in-person events did not satisfy the need for being in community to celebrate, to worship, or to mourn.
As we begin to emerge from this time, we are rejoining community activities – attending graduations, weddings, weekly church services, and fortunately memorial services. I hope that we begin to appreciate these gatherings more than we might have before. It’s pretty clear that it didn’t take long for most of us to long for the opportunity to be with loved ones and others we care about. We greatly missed family dinners, visits with grandparents and grandchildren, travel, or something as simple as having coffee with a friend at a café. If we took these moments for granted before the pandemic, we certainly recognized their importance in our lives when we could not safely gather inside.
And now we are slowly returning to larger community events. Churches are opening the doors again. High school gymnasiums are once again hosting graduation ceremonies. After the absence of these gatherings, I think that we have developed a deeper appreciation for what it means to be physically present in community. We automatically tap into the emotion of the moment as we feel the energy in the space. We are focused on the present because we could do other things if we were watching a livestream of a college graduation on our laptops. We can be fully present, physically and emotionally, in person.
Yesterday, I attended my first post-pandemic memorial service. It was held in the historic and beautiful Herrick Chapel on the Grinnell College campus. A long tenured member of the faculty died very unexpectedly the week prior at home. His wife is also a well-established and respected member of the faculty. The college community filed into the chapel dealing with the kind of grief that comes when someone too healthy and too young leaves us by surprise. We were also seeing other members of our community that we had only seen via our computer screens since March 2020. Our first re-gathering was not a happy celebration but something quite painful. The collective mournful energy in the sanctuary was palpable. One after another, loved ones came forward to share their thoughts and memories that were now even more precious than before. Everyone in the chapel had a different level of relationship with the professor, his wife, and his family, but everyone felt grief.
I am fairly certain that I was not the only one attending such a ceremony for the first time in more than a year. The physical presence of others was welcome and it more fully engaged our feelings and emotions in the moment. We’ve all been missing this ability to grieve as a community as the ritual of gathering allows us to physically express our feelings of loss. We can see, feel, and know that we aren’t alone. As a member of the family, we can feel the support of those who care about us in a way that we never could online. I know that the opportunity to sit together during this time brought up the other moments of the past several months when we lost our own family and loved ones and could not have this kind of community gathering for our unresolved grief.
It was truly a poignant time as we emerged from the chapel to touch and hug others we haven’t seen in person. Friends, colleagues, and co-workers stood on the steps greeting one another for the first time in months. We were grieving our colleague and friend, the moments that we used to take for granted, the energy that comes from being in community in good and bad times. I’m not sure that a grand celebration would have been as meaningful for a re-gathering.
Let’s be sure to mourn who and what has been lost and not rush to celebration as we come into this post-pandemic time. Let’s honor the lives lost and the families who have been forever changed and know that includes each of us. Let’s mourn that our 2020 graduates walked across the living room instead of that stage they’ve been working toward. Let’s remember our children and students and teachers who did the best they could under extraordinary circumstances. Let’s remember the loved ones who died with a compassionate healthcare professional rather than their spouse or a family member. Let’s not take any of these moments for granted again.