“Many children are going to be sad,” our youth pastor said as we discussed reopening children’s ministry in a recent Zoom meeting. “They’ve missed milestones in the last year,” she added. “We need to be prepared for their disappointment about that.”
I thought of the church milestones my family missed in the last year and a half. My youngest was baptized right before church shut down. She’d never yet joined our community for the Lord’s Table. We’d been Zooming exclusively when my thirdborn’s Sunday school class graduated from fifth grade; he’d received his Bible from the church in a masked handoff.
During this pandemic season, we missed so much as a church community. It was too simple to say we’d just be glad to get back together again. Our youth pastor was right. Even in the excitement of church reopening, we needed to make space for sadness.
Whether you’re one of the estimated 5.4 million Americans grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID, or you’re disappointed about all you’ve missed in the last year, the reopening of church and school and everyday life can feel jarring at best, deeply painful at worst—a quick pivot to happiness after a long season of sorrow, anxiety, and despair. In the last year and a half, we’ve all experienced loss, and the path toward flourishing again isn’t easy and straightforward.
Life may be reopening, but grief remains.
Make Space for Sadness
If you’ve struggled with how to face the collective enthusiasm of return to “normal life,” consider four ways to continue making space for sadness, even as you look with hope toward the future.
1. Acknowledge the time for weeping.
We know that “to everything there is a season” (Eccles. 3:1), but we rarely acknowledge that each person’s season is different. One person’s time for planting may be another’s time for sowing. One person’s time for dancing may be another’s time for sorrow. When others around us are rejoicing, we often feel pressure to join in the celebration too—whether we feel it or not.
We know that ‘to everything there is a season,’ but we rarely acknowledge that each person’s season is different. One person’s time for planting may be another’s time for sowing.
While there can be very real benefits from actively seeking joy in the midst of sorrow, we need not diminish or dismiss our grief in the meantime. If you’ve lost much in this pandemic season, this may still be your time for weeping. For example, as others celebrate a return to in-person worship, you may be grieving the empty space in the pew beside you. If this is the case, know that it’s OK for your season to look different from those around you. Even if everyone else is rejoicing, your tears do not go unnoticed by God (Ps. 56:8). His presence with you remains unchanged even when it feels like everyone else has moved on from sorrow (Ps. 34:18).
2. Engage in lament.
During the pandemic, the church rediscovered lament—perhaps one of the most beautiful and deeply meaningful by-products of an incredibly difficult season. We learned to lay our hearts bare before God, to wrestle with his goodness, to claim his promises in the darkness. But lament isn’t only for times of global unrest and disease. It’s an everyday practice that offers us access to God’s heart when life doesn’t make sense.
If your heart still sings grief’s sad melody, continue harmonizing it with lament. You can sing “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee” in the same breath as “How long, O Lord?” One does not drown out the other.
You can sing ‘Joyful, joyful, we adore thee’ in the same breath as ‘How long, O Lord?’ One does not drown out the other.
Just as there is no timetable for your grief, there is no either/or to your journey with sorrow. You can pursue a life of flourishing post-pandemic at the same time you sorrow for what could have been or used to be. You can continue bringing your frustrations and disappointments and questions to God, acknowledging that, until Jesus comes again, lament will be the believer’s song.
3. Root yourself in memories of God’s goodness.
When God gave the children of Israel his law in Deuteronomy, he told them, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you” (Deut. 15:15). When they interacted with a stranger, as they lit the Passover candles and waited for Messiah, in good times and bad, they were to remember God’s work on their behalf.
When everyone around you is celebrating their vaccinations or returning to normal routines, you might be tempted to believe that God’s goodness has been withheld from you. Why must your life still be hard when others’ seem on the upswing? When you can’t join the current collective rejoicing, instead direct your gaze to God’s past faithfulness. You have experienced other times of sorrow, but like the children of Israel your refrain is the same. “The Lord your God redeemed you.” Need inspiration? Read all 72 verses of Psalm 78, or listen to Israel recall God’s gracious acts in Psalm 105.
When you can’t join the current collective rejoicing, instead direct your gaze to God’s past faithfulness.
4. Rehearse redemption’s promises.
After my husband died in 2019, I began praying a single prayer with passionate intention: “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.” Faced with gut-wrenching sorrow and all-encompassing grief, I needed reassurance that this sad life wasn’t the end of the story.
We’ve collectively prayed that prayer through the pandemic in one form or another. But, as our worlds reopen, we might be tempted to change our tune slightly, to let our urgency for Christ’s return lag. Others may be returning to happy rhythms, but if you’re grieving, your prayer remains the same. As you root yourself in memories of God’s goodness, cling to redemption’s promise as well.
The prophet Hosea tells us, “As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth” (Hos. 6:3) If you’re grieving while the world rejoices, you need these words. In the midst of your sorrow, you don’t need to chin up and keep on the sunny side of life. You can feel earth’s grief and ask God all your questions. And as the pandemic ebbs and others’ sorrows fade, you can trust that God’s promises remain sure and true. As you wait for redemption, let Psalm 119:50 offer you hope: “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.”