Two months ago, I first mentioned the coronavirus (see “Fear Unmasked”) in a blog. At that time, the coronavirus was centered in China. Last month, I wrote about it again (see “The Unspoken Tragedy of the Coronavirus”) when cases in the US were increasing, and states began to issue stay-at-home-orders. At the time, it was said, “In two weeks we will be back to normal.”
For some, the stay-at-home orders at the beginning of March were welcomed. It was a time to renew familial relationships and focus on the important things in life. Long overdue household projects were being completed, and ordering take out became a helpful way to support the local economy. While there was anxiety as people were concerned about the availability of certain staples such as toilet paper, eggs, pasta, and flour, people also attempted to be encouraging as local leaders, ministers, and neighbors proclaimed short messages: Be positive. You are not alone. Be brave. Reach out.
However, the two weeks of staying at home turned into two more, and as the weeks have continued to accumulate, questions have arisen, “When will it end?” We hear phrases like, “I’m so ready for this to be over,” or “I want things to go back to normal.”
In short, the novelty has worn off as the losses continue to mount.
Everywhere we look, we see both increases in the loss of life as the death toll climbs and the loss of health as the coronavirus spreads. Correspondingly, as these numbers snowball, our types of losses have also been multiplying: Safety; security; freedom; connection; community; stability; peace; structure; predictability; independence; protection, etc.
Without even watching the news, one is made aware of the mushrooming nature of loss as each day seems either to generate an added dimension to an already existing loss or to yield a whole new loss. Each day brings more reminders of the loss of social contact and safety.
- The markings in the store check-out line prompt customers to maintain a distance of six feet from other customers, and the plexiglass at the check-out counter reminds us that each of us, customer and clerk, is viewed as a potential carrier of the unseen coronavirus.
- Some high trafficked stores are now monitoring the number of people that may enter the store at any one time as an added safety precaution.
- Even trust has eroded. I walk into a grocery store and see questioning eyes peering at me from above a mask that seem to ask, “Are you carrying the coronavirus? Will you be the one to infect me?”
An added dimension to loss is its multiplication so that one loss is not alone but is accompanied by other losses. If you are one of those who found purpose in your work but are now unemployed, you may not only have lost a sense of stability but also a sense of purpose, meaning, and identity.
The reality is: We are being inundated with loss, which floods our being with grief. Is it any wonder nerves may begin to fray, and depression and anger may start to grow?
If I see another rerun on HGTV . . .
If I have to tell my child to stop picking on his sister one more time . . .
If I see one more smiley face on my walk . . .
If one more person tells me to be kind . . .
Similar to the coronavirus, no “cure” exists for loss and grief. It cannot be fixed. It is a journey through which we navigate. Furthermore, our grief journeys vary—that is, they are not cookie-cutter stages. They cannot be compared. What is helpful for you may not be helpful for me.
Imagine a griever drowning in a sea of grief.
Some people appear in a boat and stand above the griever on the deck, instructing the griever what he/she should and should not do. They shout out messages: “Be optimistic”; “Save the other who is drowning”; “Be courageous!” Since grief already isolates, these would-be helpers regrettably contribute to the griever’s malaise and isolation. What is needed is a lifeline—connection. And empathy cultivates such a connection.
Unlike standing above the drowning griever on the boat’s deck, empathizers are analogous to standing with one foot in the water and one foot on the shore (if this were possible). Empathizers are both in the water but not in the water of grief. They embrace their own grief through emotional intelligence. They are emotionally self-aware of their own experience of loss while being able to identify in a limited way with the other’s experience of grief. They recognize, “I am not that person; thus, my experience is different from this griever.” They avoid phrases like, “I know how you feel,” or “Everybody goes through that,” or “Let me tell you about the time . . .” Since they are anchored on the shore, they are able to feel with and validate/normalize the griever’s story without being submerged in the waters of their own story. As empathy is present to the other’s feelings and needs, a much-needed connection is nurtured.
When a connection is made, the griever is empowered, strengthened, and enabled to find movement amidst grief’s malaise. Malaise causes the griever to close in on his/herself, rolling up into a ball. Empathy, however, sparks the griever to open up. As such, it empowers the griever to find creative ways to meet his/her needs, which is unlike the receiving of advice-giving. The receiving of empathy may embolden the griever to act, such as in reaching out to others, being brave, or being positive. When we receive empathy, we take action by offering empathy to others. That is, empathy fosters empathy—it creates connection, which feeds the desire for more connections with others.
The outcome of empathy is that one: gives, not hoards; connects, not isolates; changes, not freezes.
As a Christ-follower, the power of expressing empathy in others’ sea of grief is portrayed during Holy Week in Mark’s Gospel.
Mark begins the account of the Passion Week with a woman who is present to Jesus’s experience of death (ch. 14). Jesus is in the home of Simon the leper when a woman enters while Jesus is reclined at the table (v. 3) for the meal. For Mark, it is an unnamed woman who has a flask of pure, expensive perfume. In other words, this is not Eau de Toilette! We know it is quite expensive because later in the story we learn that it could have been sold for a year’s wages. In the telling of the story by the four Evangelists, only Mark states that she breaks the flask of the perfume. She then pours the entirety of its contents over Jesus’s head so that he is completely drenched by it.
Imagine with me for a moment your possible eating experience at such a meal. If you had been a guest at this meal, you would not have been able to avoid the aroma of this perfume as its fragrance would have heavily permeated every air molecule in the room. Within moments your nostrils would have been invaded by an overpowering smell that could have taken your breath away. If taste is largely dependent on smell, imagine how your food and your wine would have tasted as your taste buds were being overwhelmed by a very strong scent. In other words, this unidentified woman’s extravagant act toward Jesus could not to be ignored. It would have commanded your attention.
Unfortunately, not all the attention she received was favorable. Several in the room became very angry, expressing their displeasure quite strongly: “She should have sold the perfume to give it to the poor.” I would call them “the fixers,” who deem her action as not enough.
Jesus, however, comes to her defense by saying, “She did what she could.” It was enough.
According to Jesus, she is proleptically ministering to him: She is ministering to Jesus now for his future burial (v. 8). She is ministering to Jesus as he is ministering to all of humanity, including her. She is a participant in his ministry: she empathizes with him in his death and burial by anointing him while he is simultaneously ministering to her through empathy in his very being.
What do I mean? Based on the understanding of the hypostatic union, I believe that Jesus is God’s embodied expression of empathy. Jesus’s person (his being) is both fully divine and fully human. One person. Two natures. No co-mingling. They are distinct. As such, the divine forms a relational connection with humanity within Jesus’s very being. To be more explicit, in Jesus’s being (one person, two natures), the divine is present to humanity, and the divine validates and normalizes humanity.
Therefore, if Jesus is God’s embodied expression of empathy, this woman becomes a participant in Christ’s ministry of empathy. Through his atoning life (and death), he is present with humanity. When she is present to Jesus’s death/burial in a limited way, she becomes a participant in his embodied ministry toward humanity. While she joins Jesus in his brokenness (death), he has already joined her in her brokenness through his atoning life. It is his whole life that is an atonement for humanity as he simultaneously reveals God to humanity and reconciles humanity to God.
Fixers may perceive her empathic action as not doing enough, but she is a participant in Christ’s ministry; thus, she is not responsible for the outcome—Jesus is.
As such, Jesus multiplies her single act of ministry as he forever ties her action to Mark’s Passion story and the preaching of the gospel (v. 9). While the identity of this woman is immaterial for Mark, the anonymity of this woman in Mark’s Gospel is a compelling reminder to us as participants. This is Christ’s ministry, which makes her gift (and ours) more than enough. As participants in Christ’s ministry through the offering of empathy, we are not responsible for the outcome. Like this woman, as we join with others in their grief, we are participating with Christ in his ongoing ministry of joining with humanity in our grief.
I leave you with Hebrews 4:15:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin (NIV 2011).
 For more information, see Pam F. Engelbert, Who Is Present in Absence: A Pentecostal Theological Praxis of Suffering and Healing (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2019).