I am awake. The room is dark, and still. My husband’s steady breathing keeps gentle time beside me. My breath comes in shallow sips. I try to inhale but my lungs feel like they are being squeezed. Spring snowmelt drips slow onto the roof outside my window. Night only amplifies the chaos from the day: School is no longer in person, and children grieve in the most inconvenient ways. Viability of COVID-19–on hands, on shoes, trajectories of coughs or sneezes—makes me afraid to touch anything, to offer a hug to a friend. Headline after changing headline cartwheels through my mind. Even when I try to slow my breathing, my throat constricts. Anxiety, I think.
In the Southern California summers of my childhood, I spent hours in the ocean wading, splashing, swimming, bodysurfing, floating. The reminders about rip currents occurred with much greater frequency than sharks or stingrays: from guardians, on signs, with signal flags. We were taught, “Don’t fight the current. Don’t swim back toward the shore. Turn around and swim or float with it, out past the waves, until it releases its grip.”
I learned to spot the narrow channel of water running back out to sea, but since I was usually in the water, I felt the rip currents first with my body, pulling me away from the shore. No matter how much I knew, my instinct was to fight the water’s pull, to swim hard toward land, even though I knew by rote that this is how people drown.
I have been on a long, slow journey toward befriending my body, realizing that it holds an earthy wisdom I do well to listen to. If I’m tired, I need to rest, not seek caffeine. I’ve also learned that if there is an emotion I’m not aware of—or trying to ignore—my body holds onto it until I tend to it. C.S. Lewis opens his book, A Grief Observed, rooted in and informed by the viscera of his body: “No one ever told me that grief felt like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” When I read this, it clicks: I am not anxious, I am grieving. With young children, my quarantine days are filled to the brim, so my body wakes me to show me this in the darkest hours when my guard is down. I am learning my body doesn’t lie.
But I am a creature of instinct. I fight myself for control just like I swim against a rip current toward the shore. I’m afraid of being carried beyond where I can stand. I want the shifting certainty of sand beneath my feet. I fear the depths. Each loss touches all of the other losses I have experienced, whether or not I acknowledge them. Grief erupts over things like a lack of toilet paper, over pages of obituaries with no funerals, over the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, over protests turned violent. People objectified over race, politics, religion. Them against us against them. I keep waking with this shortness of breath.
The only way out is through, I tell myself; the only way to survive this rip current of grief is to stop trying to swim toward the shore. I don’t need to read books about grief, or to talk about grief, or to diminish my grief by comparing it to another’s, but I need to recognize when grief takes shape in my body. And once I see it, I need to gather it in, to turn toward it and swim into its depths. But not alone.
From Matthew’s gospel: Then Jesus went with them to a garden called Gethsemane and told his disciples, “Stay here while I go over there and pray.” Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he plunged into an agonizing sorrow. Then he said, “This sorrow is crushing my life out. Stay here and keep vigil with me.”
In the garden, Jesus chose to turn toward sorrow, toward a grief that enveloped him. He plunged. He was squeezed. Crushed. The pandemic has brought our collective illusions of comfort and control to an end, and the world keeps waking with a shortness of breath.
If I don’t choose—again and again—to allow myself to experience both the fullness and range of my humanity, I will have nothing to offer. But in order to do this, I need to release control, to swim away from the shore and toward the depths. I need to grieve. But how? How do I navigate this deadly riptide? How do I keep from drowning?
It is early April and the pile of clean laundry looms large, so I match socks and fold shirts, listening to a podcast to settle my racing mind. Spiritual director Tara Owens discusses the weight of pandemic grief that has settled onto the shoulders of everyone, regardless of station or age, whether or not they acknowledge it. She speaks of her own earlier grief, of two heart attacks she endured with no explanation. She speaks of now, of trying to balance work and care for her 5-year-old daughter. She knows grief, but her voice does not betray panic.
Instead, Owens offers an invitation to lament. She defines lament as “that which names my sorrow, pain, anger, or fear before God.” There is a trust that undergirds lament that is absent from a complaint. Lament calls on God’s presence and His lovingkindness. It is choosing relationship, and asking, “Where are you?” and “How is this loving?”
In turning toward grief, I must face God’s apparent violation of his promised presence or his lovingkindness. This requires a level of relationship that I thought I had. And yet I shrink back. If I’m not careful, and it doesn’t kill me, the process of grieving may make me more human. More alive. And when I’m honest, there are days I’m not sure I want that. And yet I do.
This invitation to first turn toward grief and then lament must be for everyone. And yet, what of we who write?
As a writer, this means that I must be willing first to live and then write into the unknowing, the chaos, the questions. It means that there will be times when I need to allow myself to dwell beyond words, and perhaps to lay words aside, so that my life and words will not fall out of sync with each other. As T.S. Eliot wrote in Little Gidding,
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity,
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
I must ask, have I become enamored of my words? Is my end to impress God, or someone else? Is that how small prayer can become?
And then, Paul breaks apart the idea of prayer for the Christians in Rome: “Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” Grief is no less frightening, no less painful, no less a loss of control, but if I choose to turn toward God in my grief, I may be out of my depth, but I am not out of my depth alone.
Eugene Peterson writes of the mystical transformation that happens when I choose to lament: “Pain entered into, accepted, and owned can become poetry. It’s no less pain, but it’s no longer ugly. Poetry is our most personal use of words; it’s our way of entering experience, not just watching it happen to us and inhabiting it as our home.” Choosing to lament can make me more present in my life, if I will allow it. But it is not for the faint at heart.
Moving away from self-protection and toward lament means that I’ve chosen to swim with a deadly current out past where the waves break, past where I can stand. When I do so, I swim toward a Presence who chose to take on a body Himself, who offered an image of a good Father whose lovingkindness (in Hebrew: hesed) defies full definition. I swim toward a Spirit who prays in and for me, shaping my honest groans into prayers. When I let myself enter wordlessness, my words are changed, because I am changed.
When I choose to lament, I swim toward the potential of wonder. I swim toward the possibility of becoming more halig (hale, healthy, hearty, whole, holy) because I swim toward the Author of a story that is infinitely bigger than my own.
Matthew 26:36-38. The Message : The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, NavPress, 2012.
 Smith, Steve. Potter’s Inn Soul Care Conversations: Lamenting Through The Pandemic with Tara Owens. 31 Mar. 2020, Season 3, Episode 47. Podcast.
 Eliot, T S. Four Quartets. Boston, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, [201, 1971, p 54
 Romans 8:26-28. The Message : The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, NavPress, 2012
 Peterson, Eugene H. Leap over a Wall : Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians. New York, Harper San Francisco, 1998.
The featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Amy Malskeit is a lover of words and stories and people. She holds an undergraduate degree in English and Spanish, a secondary English teaching credential, and an MA in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry from Lancaster University in Northwest England. Her years teaching middle and high school gave her a love for middle grade and young adult literature, and the awkward awesome that being a young adult means. She is a mother of two who plants her garden and makes her home in the foothills southwest of Denver with her best friend, Kevin. She loves the water, and feels most at home when she is near the Pacific Ocean. She reads broadly, and is passionate about exploring big questions and small moments through her poetry, essays, and stories.