what’s happening to us?


What’s happening to us? A few weeks ago, we were planning our spring. The kids were all in school. March Madness was about to begin (this year, the madness is for real). Then the news starting dribbling in, slowly, in bits and pieces. Corona-what? Surely, this will go away. Then the snowball began: flights abbreviated, concerts postponed, sports canceled, schools closed. And then came the stay-at-home orders.

What’s happening to us? It’s happening fast. But, it also feels surreal, like slow motion.

I’m all conflicted about it, cycling through phases of panic/denial, anger/fear, and blame/regret.

I’ve felt this before, in a much-abbreviated way, a few years ago when I got rear-ended. This might seem like a lame comparison—a global pandemic compared to a fender-bender—but bear with me and I think you might see the similarities. And the differences.

I was stopped in my lane, blinker on, about to turn left into my office parking lot. As soon as there was a gap in the oncoming traffic, I was going to pull in, park, and finish up a normal afternoon like I’d done hundreds of times before.

But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, I glanced into my rear-view mirror and saw a car speeding towards me, the driver looking down. Too late I realized: They. Are. Going. To. Hit. Me.

It happened in just a few seconds, but I experienced it in slow-motion.

I’ve tried to name that sensation, sitting there knowing I was going to be hit. It was a sick feeling, something you might label as dread. But it was mixed in a soup of other feelings: fear, helplessness, anger, and regret. It rose up unbidden, like bile. I was confused. I ineffectively mashed my brake pedal as I sat there and watched it happen.

Anticipatory Grief

That experience was similar to what we are collectively feeling now. We are all in the same car in the middle of a slow-motion wreck. Until recently, we were all just sitting in our little “lane of normal life,” and we happened to glance up and see a collision coming. Some have named this experience anticipatory grief. We know there will be losses, but whether it will just be a bad fender-bender or whether it will completely total things we don’t know, because it is still unfolding.  Thus, we are stuck in a loop of waiting for, anticipating, the grief we know is coming eventually.

We experience this other places: dreading a bad test to be graded, thinking about a tense dialogue that is about to happen, waiting for a diagnosis. The term is most often used when you are standing vigil with a loved one who is dying. We know there will be losses, but they haven’t fully arrived yet.

Naming what’s happening to us can be helpful. When I was being rear-ended, I didn’t have time to name anything. But then, it was momentary. Our present circumstances are not momentary, but monthly. We are stuck in an loop, but this means we have time to name it.

Thinking of this as a grief process helps us with the emotional limbo. It is normal to cycle through a series of emotions, and even okay. Grief is how human beings deal with loss. Grief is helpful because it is honest and it is hopeful.

Grief is honest, because it tells the truth. We know there will be losses, but it’s the not knowing how many that is difficult. So grief will look for honest ways to express the difficulty. Some days you will be fearful. Some days you will be angry. Some days will be okay. The feelings are going to come out one way or another, and honest confession is much healthier (for you and those around you) than leaky repression. It is important to allow yourself to express (and to let others express) in healthy ways.

Grief is hopeful, at least, Christian grief is. It might seem odd to call it hopeful but it is, because Christian grief is based on redemption; the losses of this life are not the final word. Jesus models this for us. He had his own anticipatory grief that first Easter week. The events of that week happened quickly, but then, perhaps it was like slow-motion for Him. The triumphal entry, the clearing of the temple, the last Passover with his disciples, the betrayal, the torches coming through the garden for Him. He honestly expressed His grief that night: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Jesus was honest about what was happening to him. Jesus faced the losses fully, but he also looked past them. You might say He had anticipatory hope.

There is life beyond a bad test grade, or a car wreck, or the Coronavirus or it’s economic consequences. We don’t know how big the losses will be. But we know the ultimate gains will be larger. There is life even beyond death itself. Death will “be swallowed up by life.” (I Cor. 15)

For now, anticipatory grief. But hope comes in the morning.

Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. He works with both individuals and couples, helping people confess their need and embrace their available choices to lead healthier lives. Roger also teaches and leads discussion groups and retreats applying the Gospel to everyday life. He is a licensed clinical mental health counselor (LCMHC), holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean; they have seven children and nine grandchildren.


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