A Retreat for Grieving

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“Give the sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Each year I look forward to writing a piece for our Retreat Issue. Often, I compose it on my way home from my annual retreat. However, this year I haven’t made a retreat, rather I have sheltered at home for months on end.

One might think that this, of itself, would be a retreat. It hasn’t been. It’s been a year on edge. A year waiting for the latest numbers—on COVID-19 deaths, on vaccine distribution, on measures of loneliness, on business closures, on unemployment, on gun fatalities, on crowds of protestors, on school openings and closings. Waves of numbers.

It is easy to be swept away in the undertow of numbers. Each represents a loss felt by individuals, families, communities. There has been little space to grieve before hearing of the next casualty.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, on the eve of their January inauguration, paused to remember the hundreds of thousands of Americans who died of COVID-19. They stood in the solemnity of lit candles before the National Mall reflecting pool. As they began a new administration, they paid tribute to those who would not go forward with them. They recognized our collective grief. They modeled how to begin after great loss.

We need to pause to honor what is gone. We all need a retreat to grieve.

What might that look like?

First, we name our losses. Every September 11 people assemble to name the 2,977 people who died in the 2001 terror attacks. The Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC lists the individual names of all American military who died in combat during that protracted war. Communities gather to name victims of violence. Our retreat would begin by naming our losses. We would pause to remember those we lost in the 15 months since our world withdrew into isolation to stop the march of this pernicious virus. Some died from COVID-19, some from despair, some from violence. For others it was their time. We all lost the opportunity to fully grieve each passing.

While people are at the top of our loss list, we have also lost a host of less personal and less tangible things such as a sense of freedom, safety, innocence. We’ve lost face-to-face contact with neighbors, family, people in our weekly meetings. We’ve lost the routine gatherings in our home, our church, the public square. We’ve lost graduation parties, grandchildren sleepovers, family time at the lake. We’ve lost local restaurants, neighborhood salons, quaint curio shops.

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Let us name our losses.

May we give ourselves and our loved ones permission to grieve. New life will follow.Secondly, we lament. To lament is to complain, wail, mourn aloud. We hold so much sorrow, individually and collectively. We await another tragedy, another change in direction, another person hurt or ill, or dead. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” It is time to weep.

It is hard for me to give my feelings the freedom to be loud, bold, and immediate. I prefer a controlled mask. Who am I protecting? I can take my sorrows to a Higher Power and really complain—be angry, hurt, and noisy. It isn’t fair. It isn’t good. It isn’t right. How can you do this to me? To us? Why must this be? We express this pain in peaceful public protests. We gather to lament what has happened. We want people to know how sad and afraid and in pain we are.

In our retreat we can give our sorrow words. We can read poetry of lament. Scripture teacher Walter Brueggemann estimates that a third of the Psalms are prayers of lament. We can rant to our God. We can sit in our sorrow and simply be. We can weep.

Let us lament.

Thirdly, we celebrate what was. We do this with story and symbol. Mourners create spontaneous tributes at the scene of a violent death such as where George Floyd died, or at the deceased’s home like at the gates of Buckingham Palace on the recent death of Prince Phillip, or at a meaning-making place such as on the steps of the Supreme Court for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

As we consider our many losses, what might be a way to honor them? Beauty calls at these times. A cousin honored my mother-in-law’s death with a bouquet of flowers each month for a year. A piece of artistic expression might be a way to weave together our losses. Perhaps a collage, a poem, a quilt. Amanda Gorman’s lyrical poem at the Biden/Harris inauguration was both a tribute to what had been lost in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol as well as a way to move through the grief in the promise of a hopeful future.

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How might we tell our stories at our grief retreat? Maybe we can write a letter to a deceased person on our list. We could share how lonely life is without them, a memory from our time together, an amends for past hurt. This doesn’t just have to be for a deceased loved one. It could be for someone we have not been able to see during this isolation. I could write to a friend about how I miss having coffee together, remembering the last time we met and telling her I miss her.

I could remember with my children what school was like before this year of remote learning, what we liked and what we didn’t. We could listen to their stories.

Our book group took a leave from gathering and each of us wrote about what life is like during this disorienting time. We shared those stories, laughing and crying. It isn’t just COVID-19, it is also all the other life happenings—cancer diagnoses, family crises, lost jobs.

Let us remember what was with symbol and story.

Finally, we re-enter through ritual. We may not know what the future holds, but we do know that there is a future. Ritual moves us through our grief and mourning into a place of hope. We may mark the end of this retreat time with a simple prayer or poem or song. Perhaps it is creating an altar to hold the symbols, words of lament, named losses. Rituals often involve the four elements: Fire, water, earth, and air. I could burn my laments. I could wash the entry to my home with a basin of water symbolizing my tears. I could place a spring seedling in the earth, watching it grow into new life. I could set sail my hopes on the spring breezes. While my ritual is mine to design, I may invite a loved one to join me, entering together into this new beginning.

Let us ritually re-enter.

I will take time to have a retreat for grieving. The losses are too great to just sweep away. May we give ourselves and our loved ones permission to grieve. New life will follow.


Mary Lou Logsdon is a spiritual director and retreat leader in the Twin Cities. She teaches in the Sacred Ground Spiritual Direction training program. She can be reached at logsdon.marylou@gmail.com.

Last Updated on May 5, 2021

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