COVID Stole the Wienermobile and Everyone Is Grieving

The Virus Hasn’t Just Come for our Bodies and Spirits

Bryan J. / 7.8.20

Well, the virus finally hit my small town in rural Pennsylvania last week, and it hit in a way that surprised us all. Don’t worry, we’re all fine and healthy for the most part. But the virus hasn’t just come for our bodies and spirits. The most recent casualty of COVID-19 was our annual town festival, which was officially cancelled last week.

It’s not just any town festival either, let me tell you. Our sleepy borough of 2,000 residents welcomes 100,000 people over three days to a festival that features fair food, craft vendors, and the region’s best parade. We’re not just talking firetrucks and homecoming courts here people! We bring out the big guns: icons like the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile and the Budweiser Clydesdales, NFL stars and collegiate marching bands! Our local school system shuts down for a day to let the kids enjoy the festivities each year. Every year, that is, except this year. This year, our town festival was stolen by the coronavirus.

The virus has stolen much from us this year. Grandparents are missing out on formative years with grandchildren. Jobs have been lost. Work projects are on hold. We have lost the blessing of living in a world where death was not at the forefront of our minds. Kiddos are separated from their classmates; nursing home residents are in solitary confinement. The virus has even stolen church from most of us.

All this loss seems to be bringing out the worst in us, too, and the worst of us is being documented and shared online. A woman kicked out of Trader Joe’s for not wearing a mask is filmed calling employees names and throwing a temper tantrum. A Community Facebook group is at war over mask mandates. A man on camera angrily bellows at an elderly woman that he “feels threatened” when she asks him to wear a mask. The Internet, it seems, is leaking, and the heightened emotions are all showing up IRL.

I recently had an epiphany about our collective bad behavior, and I thought I might share it with you for your consideration. The things that are driving us insane during this pandemic season all make sense through the lens of grief.

Grief looks different depending on the person, but there are patterns to how our grief manifests in the day-to-day. As suggested by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, grief can reveal itself in other emotional states, with her top five being denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The virus has stolen so much from us, we might benefit from using her insights on grief to understand the behaviors we see in the news (and in ourselves!).

It’s not hard to see the world around us in denial. I think of the college kids who insisted on taking a spring break trip to Mexico last April, only to return with an outbreak of the virus among their group. I think of the conspiracy theorists who believe that vaccines are tools used by Bill Gates to plant tracking chips under our skin. There’s also, of course, the community of anti-mask activists who insist that face covering mandates are a violation of human rights. On their own, such actions are viewed as selfish or unintelligent, but in the context of society-wide grief, we might view such expressions of denial as deserving of our pity instead of our outrage.

Anger is certainly in the cultural air we’re all breathing. At the grocery store a few weeks back, I turned down the wrong way of a one-way bread aisle in a haze of small-child-sleep-deprivation. An older gentleman made dagger eyes at me from behind his mask and asked me, “What are you, stupid or something?” The two of us had words, and thankfully, we departed in mutual repentance, me for not following the aisle instructions and he for taking his anger out on a sleep-deprived father of a young child. Fuses are short and in short supply these days, and for every viral video of an Internet meltdown, I am sure there are countless that go unrecorded.

Bargaining with the corona-thief seems to be everyone’s daily struggle. If I go into the shop, but I’m the only one in the shop, do I have to wear a mask? If I quarantine for two weeks prior, can I travel across state lines to visit my family? If I am double exhausted from working at home and taking care of the children, I can use the paper plates tonight and give the kids extra screen time, right? (To all the parents—yes, yes you can!) These are the questions we are all asking of ourselves, of our neighbors, and I would say, even of God himself. Try to catch yourself in this bargaining place next time you try to regain something that the pandemic has stolen from you.

Truthfully, though, the depression phase of grief is the one most of us are experiencing. The study we highlighted a few weeks back, that Americans are the unhappiest they’ve been in 50 years, is more than simple survey clickbait. It’s a testament to the grief we are all experiencing. The lives we wanted for ourselves, the lives we took for granted, have been upended. Vacations have been cancelled, concerts have been indefinitely postponed, and many churches continue to meet digitally. Community resources that help with depression like pubs, gyms, and town festivals have been stolen by the virus, too. Depression and its symptoms of numbness and lack of motivation are reasonable responses to the times we live in.

Acceptance that we are victims of the COVID-thief is rare, but it does exist. I heard a story about a family that went in on matching masks, and I thought that was cute. A working mother confided in me recently that she really didn’t want 120,000 people to die, but she appreciated the bonus “maternity leave” afforded to her by working from home and watching her relatively low-maintenance newborn. A friend confided in me with a sly grin that he and his wife were enjoying working from home because it allowed them time to rekindle a sex life that had been sacrificed to his long commute. Now that is acceptance!

Among the many consolations of being a law/gospel Christian is the sure and certain knowledge that there is no law against grief. In light of Jesus’s death and resurrection, it is true that we grieve differently than the rest of the world, but that doesn’t mean we don’t grieve. Christians who have come to a place of acceptance regarding God’s unconditional love have a unique gift to offer their neighbor. They have learned to provide a non-condemning and gracious space for grief because they received that same space from a non-condemning and gracious God.

That non-condemning grace takes many forms: intentional amnesia when a friend says something offensive, meeting the anger of a stranger with asymmetrical kindness, recognizing in others our own tendency to bargain, listening without interference to the negativity of someone in a depressive episode. It is certainly the case that the last thing we need are rules for “grieving properly,” or an attempted moratorium on grief at all. Such laws are a dangerous denial of human frailty.

So when the virus steals your town festival and your borough explodes with rage, or when you’re accosted in the grocery store for accidentally going the wrong way down the aisle, or when you’re tempted to share and disseminate the latest viral video featuring someone on their worst day, I hope that a more sympathetic view of grief helps clarify the off-putting actions of others. It is better, I think, to see our neighbors as wounded and grieving instead of ignorant or detestable. Lord knows that if the heavens responded to our grief in such a negative way, we’d have worse problems than the pandemic.