2020: Mourning the Loss of a Year

Lament and then live to tell the story

Image: Tim Rubmann on Unsplash

In January of 2020, I looked forward to the future. I thought it was mine to decide. But 2020 broke all of its promises and it broke us too. No matter who we are or how it affected us, we need to mourn the collective trauma. I’m putting together a plan.

On 1/1/2020 my daughter and I drank celery juice and ate healthy foods. We cleaned our closets, smiled at 2020 and stuffed 2019’s Christmas memories into boxes. We vacuumed up glitter, grateful for blessings. But, if I’m honest, I’ll admit we didn’t yet think of them as privilege.

My second daughter awoke in a hotel on New Year’s day after having attended one of the largest Gen Z Christian gatherings on the planet. If the virus had been in the U.S. just a few weeks earlier, this would’ve been a super-spreader disaster.

My oldest woke up early to go to work in the bakery from which she would soon be furloughed and receive compensation through a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill none of us knew we would need.

I spent the first hours of the new year in the first chapters of this book, examining what was wrong and right in my life and how I would ask God to make me a better person. My word for the year was “strength,” and I started asking God for it that very first day.

All in all, life was pretty good, and 2020 held a lot of promise. I’ve never done this before, but I wrote the year on a small chalkboard and hung it on a wall. Something about 2020 was going to be special.

Image: Author

But 2020 broke all of its promises

This year, I woke up on New Year’s day sick. I spent it under a blanket watching 12 episodes of a cheesy Russian sitcom, because it didn’t feel right to make resolutions for an unknown future. If I couldn’t muster the strength to dream my way into 2021, at least I could passively strengthen my language skills for a vacation I still only dream of taking.

The celery we were going to juice to commemorate last year’s healthy January sat on the counter all day because I couldn’t gather the strength to liquify it.

The year 2020 betrayed the hopeful. It was not a year I would’ve wished on my worst enemy. Even now, the cruel year seems not willing to recognize that everyone is asking it to leave.

It’s hard to plan and dream and hope for 2021 when the pain and threat of 2020 still lingers.

We’re not designed to ignore trauma

The fact is, my situation isn’t that bad. My cold probably isn’t the deadly kind of coronavirus. I have a good job. No one in my household has died. We celebrated Christmas. I am thankful to have survived. But I’m not willing to forget that other people haven’t, and that many have suffered terribly.

Some lost people they loved. Brave health professionals were dramatically overworked or lost their lives fighting to save the lives of others. For those isolated or anxious, the year was torture. Drug abuse skyrocketed. Some people went without food. A family I know is living, unheated, through the winter so they’ll have enough cash for food.

We have to acknowledge that the pain of the year didn’t affect everyone equally. To put it mildly, 2020 didn’t play fair. It rained down atrocities on communities already suffering … one, then another, and then another.

And it wasn’t just about sickness. It was just as much about injustice. The year pointed out ugly truths about our country, exposing a hideousness (that had long been at least a little disguised) in many people’s hearts. And once this national sin was exposed, instead of casting it off, some celebrated it, wore it like badge of honor.

What prompts a man to find his greatness only in hating another group of people? I will never understand this.

But we’ve had to keep on living, keep on working, keep on … keeping on, right in the face of all of this. That isn’t good for us — not mentally, physically, or emotionally. Our hearts and souls, spirits and physical bodies … we weren’t designed to ignore pain, especially not on this scale. Crises are supposed to end, so we can recover from them. But we have not been afforded that option.

Image: engin akyurt on Unsplash

Repression — the clinical term for trying to stuff all your trauma back into the bottle and put the lid on — has terrible consequences. The list of long-term emotional and psychological disorders caused by repressed trauma starts with clinical depression and just get worse from there. Physical consequences of repressed trauma begin with a weakened immune system.

Pause and think about that for a second as an entire nation is having to suck it up and move into a new year still mid-pandemic.

We’re going to have to learn how to process emotion in healthy ways — and quickly — if we’re going to survive and overcome. We’re going to have to learn to mourn 2020 if we want a healthy 2021 and after.

We mourn differently for the year than a loved one

When someone we love dies, we mourn because we will miss them. We sit with friends and family and recount all the good things, sometimes even calling them better than they were. Who wants to dig up painful memories when there’s enough pain in the loss of someone to last as far into the future as we can see?

We tell stories to keep our loved one’s alive in our hearts. We’ll tell these stories to our children, in case they were too young to remember. These stories are critical, part of our shared memory, part of how we make sense of loss.

We will all repeat them, so it matters how we tell them.

But mourning 2020 isn’t the same. Mourning 2020 is more like processing the death of an abuser than the death of a loved one.

It beat us down, destroyed relationships, stole our dreams and killed people we cared about. It locked us inside a country gripped by racial, political, and socioeconomic turmoil and tried to force us to accept that the world is nothing but senselessness and hostility. It told us it could kill us and that there was no cure.

But we are still living. We will tell the story of 2020, and it matters how we tell it.

Processing a year’s worth of trauma doesn’t happen in a minute. It doesn’t happen in the time it takes to tell one story or even to write it down and format it. However, research shows that being able to recount a traumatic experience is a huge step toward recovering from it. The broken, lost, helpless and traumatized person gains control of her story when she becomes its narrator.

Research shows that being able to recount a traumatic experience in the order it occurred is a huge step toward recovering from it.

But there’s a step we must take before we begin the retelling of 2020.

Image: Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

The necessity of lament

This isn’t a normal practice for me, but I think I may establish it as one. Before I can take even one real step of commitment into 2021, I’m going to lament.

What is lament?

Lament is a visceral expression of grief or sorrow. It’s the sound that anguish makes. It’s the heart’s cry of the afflicted, and the out-loud shout of the exasperated. It’s a step in the process of healing.

In some cultures it is weeping and wailing mixed with singing. For others it’s tearing clothes, falling to your knees or pounding a wall. It’s the primal scream. It is “Woe is me!” and it is “Whyyyyyyyy?!”

It’s the sound the wife of a soldier makes after the police leave her front door hats in their hands, having delivered their bad news. It’s the cry of a mother, knees and forehead on the floor, upon the loss of her child.

Science has shown us that these gut-level expressions have real impact on our ability to cope with stress, literally removing toxins through our tears.

Lament is the sound of nearly half of the Psalms in the Bible, but as far as I can tell, it’s not reserved for Christians. No matter who you are, I would encourage you to join me. You don’t have to use the Bible, but it can help.

The Psalms are remarkable in that they are deeply transparent, like the journal of someone who doesn’t care if you’re reading it. And the psalmist will scream for you when you can’t think of words yourself. (Try Psalm 6, Psalm 10, Psalm 90:12–17, Psalm 130.)

Lament isn’t just in the Psalms either. It’s in the prophets’ cries too. One whole book of the Bible is dedicated to nothing but lamentation. It seems the God who is beside the brokenhearted doesn’t mind a little yelling. (There are at least eight words for “cry out” in the Bible, each with a slightly different meaning.) God is not afraid of your demanding to be heard. And he doesn’t seem offended by it either, as long as it’s from the heart.

Hear my cry, O God; Listen to my prayer!
From the end of the earth will I call to you, when my heart is overwhelmed….

He doesn’t mind your questions:

Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?

And he listens:

In my distress I cried out to the LORD; yes, I prayed to my God for help. He heard me from his sanctuary; my cry to him reached his ears.

Lament can be loud and angry, bitter and honest. It can take the form of inexpressible groaning. The world’s not going to fall apart if your lament contains long, loud strings of profanity or just “Why God?” or “How long?!”

I see places in the Bible where it wasn’t just Christians crying out to God but he answered anyway. I’ve put all my hope in him, but even if you haven’t, it’s worth a try. I tried this when I didn’t have faith and then when I did. I promise you that calling to someone you think might be listening feels a lot better than screaming into the air and knowing you’re alone.

Lament can end with you face down on the floor weeping for a whole night. Or it can end with you getting up, dusting yourself off and walking away. But it always ends, and you are better for it. Just don’t skip the step of expressing the horror this year has been to you.

Then go and tell your story.

Image: Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Healing through story

I was talking, once, with a counselor to troubled teens. She told me she had trained as a trauma healer in the Middle East. She said part of her training involved showing up at the scene of a bombing. The first thing you do, she said, is give the traumatized person a job to do. It gives the person a different role in the story they will tell, she explained, a way to view himself as a positive actor when he remembers it, rather than a victim.

Even if it’s just carrying bottles of water to the injured or wrapping a wound, it can become a vivid and anchoring memory.

You take the next step soon after the danger has passed. You ask the traumatized to tell their story in order. It’s important that they do the mental work of bringing order to what happened to them, and it’s important that no one tells the story for them. It is their story, and they will tell it over and over. Only they can decide now how they want it to be told forever.

Deciding how you want your 2020 story told is also part of the healing process. It’s a way out of the foxhole and up onto safer terrain. It’s a way you can tell 2020 it’s time to go and the way you prove it didn’t beat you!

Writing your 2020 story

Two predictable things must be said about two hard things that remain to be done, or we’ll write our 2020 stories in a way that is dumb and blind and graceless. A) Though we must be brutally honest, we must also try to find some good in the mess, and B) we must be thankful for whatever good things we still have. Gratitude is strong medicine too.

For most of us, these responses don’t come easily. It might help to do it the way the trauma healer explained.

  1. What was the thing you did to help someone else? Did you stand up for the fair treatment of another person or group of people? Did you bring food to someone who couldn’t go out? Did you contribute financially to help people during the pandemic? Did you keep in touch with a friend who was sick so they wouldn’t be alone? Did you save an abandoned animal?

    Whatever good thing you did this year, hang onto that. Hang on also to what good things you did to better yourself in spite of the disaster of a year that has unfolded around you. Hold to these things tightly. Let the rest of your story hinge on them. You are not a victim of 2020. You are a survivor. However it happened, in whatever little way, you were a hero in the story.
  2. Second, tell your story in order. You can use a calendar, go month by month, or tell it in episodes or seasons. Write everything you’re angry about and everything you wish didn’t happen, but don’t let that be the focus. Burn those pieces of paper if it helps. Then write the story the way you want it told.

    You can use sticky notes, and then put them on the wall chronologically if it helps. Just be sure you don’t recall the events of 2020 as a pile of things that happened to you. Putting things that are unfair or don’t make sense into sensible order is a part of healing too.
  3. Make a list of what you did not lose in 2020. Start with your life. Maybe add your health. Did you stay in your home, keep all your friendships? Did you do a good job at work or get a promotion? Did you keep your job while others were losing theirs? Did you learn a new skill that you will use into the future? Did you love someone fiercely? What do you still have that matters for your future? I don’t mean to sound like Marie Kondo, but maybe you could say a little thank you for each of these things.

Take your time

In one way or another, the year 2020 was traumatic for all of us. And, really, we’re not all the way out. So it makes sense that you may have to lament more than once. You may want to work on your story. Edit in a month, and then again the month after that. Maybe you schedule a time to look at it next year and see if there’s anything you’d like to change about how you tell it.

A long time from now, there will be someone younger than you who doesn’t remember. It will be your job to share the story. It will be your job to provide the detailed and personal account only you can tell, that isn’t found in a history book or even online.

A long time from now, 2020 may be remembered as one of the hardest or worst years in the history of America. Sharing how you healed by acknowledging and mourning the loss — and then telling your story in order — may be a way you pass on the transformative power of lament to someone who desperately needs healing, so they can live to tell their own story.

I am not a mental-health professional. Nothing in this article should be construed as professional advice.

I write, edit, design curriculum, manage web content, and study/teach language for fun. jfturnerwrites@gmail.com https://www.facebook.com/jfturner.writes

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