The Complicated Grief of Advent

Newsletter No. 22

Heidi Deddens
Heidi Deddens is the managing editor of Comment magazine. She holds an MA in Interdisciplinary Humanities with a focus on English Literature from Trinity Western University, where she was managing editor of the university's literary journal. Born and raised in Western Canada, she now lives in Ottawa.

One of my favorite Advent hymns is “O Come O Come Emmanuel”—though for much of my life, I must admit, that love stemmed more from the haunting beauty of the melody than the rich meaning of its lyrics. This year, though, the words feel particularly apt. The first verse of the hymn begins,

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

Exile is perhaps too dramatic a word for the pandemic and its attendant restrictions that have isolated us from our friends, families, and the fellowship of community. But I suspect we have all felt loneliness at various points this year, and mourned those lost to the virus (as well as what the virus has revealed about our society). The hymn later cries out to God, “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, / And death’s dark shadows put to flight.”

Chelsea Langston Bombino and her husband, Joshua, know something of “death’s dark shadows,” having lost their infant son in 2018 just as the season of Advent was beginning. “The season of the dying of the light coupled with hopeful anticipation of its return,” Chelsea writes. “We, too, were waiting for our baby to come, yet we knew he would not. . . . We read and wept and prayed.” When the lockdown began in March—still mourning Samuel, and with another baby to care for—Joshua wrote, “Chelsea and I are about to get very intimate with complicated grief. . . . What are the rhythms to sustain me?”

Tomorrow marks the first day of Advent, a season of waiting and praying for Christ’s return. Often Christians embrace the rhythms of the liturgical seasons as opportunities to emphasize different aspects of the Christian faith and tradition, aspects that might be otherwise overlooked. Yet this whole year has felt like a season of waiting—plans put on hold or canceled altogether, uncertainty about what the next government announcement might portend, the distance between us and our loved ones seemingly dilated with the knowledge that we can’t simply get on a plane to visit them. We must learn to wait with eager longing, the better to understand and join with the creation that groans in childbirth.

For Advent is not only about waiting. It is also a season defined by hope. “So we do not lose heart,” the apostle Paul writes. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

It’s strong language—shocking, even, to be told that our present sorrows are but momentary afflictions. The devastating loss of a child? The complex sufferings and consequences of a global pandemic? Light and momentary? For of course it doesn’t feel that way, here in the midst of it. It feels like grief. Sometimes, it may even feel like a kind of exile. The haunting melody of the hymn expresses something of that sorrow and longing.

But to have hope, we need to look beyond the immediate circumstances of our lives. We need to cultivate not only temporal bandwidth but also eternal bandwidth. Not one of the verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” ends with those lines about exile and mourning, grief and death. Each is followed by this joyful refrain, full of hope for the eternal reunion that awaits: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, O Israel.”

Christ has come—the child whom Mary bore, whose death she witnessed—and he will come again. That is the hope that defines this season, that sustains us in the midst of all grief, frustration, and uncertainty.

This Advent, may our grief at what this year has brought be complicated by joy, by love, by peace, and above all, by hope in the Emmanuel. Christ is with us, and he shall come again.

Heidi Deddens Signature