Tales of COVID: The Neutral Zone


By Sue Magrath, MC

To say that we have been through a time of upheaval and change over the past 18 months would be a massive understatement. It has been a period of many, many losses—the loss of lives, relationships, normal social interaction, in-person worship, hugs, and our sense of safety. There is virtually nothing unchanged by the wrecking ball that was COVID-19. Just as an example, my mother-in-law died in December, and my father-in-law nearly died of COVID shortly afterward. My husband and I got COVID, our son lost his job early in the pandemic, and another family member suffered a rupture of their marriage. For clergy, the changes in how you had to lead worship and minister to your flock required skills they don’t teach in seminary. The learning curve was over-the-top stressful.

The question is, when will we find the time to grieve these significant losses? My husband had a single afternoon in which to mourn his mother before we found out his dad had COVID. After that, life became a blur. And that’s what the pandemic has been like—one crisis after another, plodding through our days doing the next thing and the next and the next. There was no time to grieve, no time to process our trauma. Because that’s what COVID was, a life-threatening trauma that we faced every day for the past 18 months.

And this is a problem because the thing I know about grief and trauma is that they don’t just go away. They lie in wait and creep up on when you least expect it, sometimes at completely inopportune times. Grief and trauma demand to be honored. So the sooner you deal with these feelings, the better. This is true not only individually but also communally. Has your congregation taken the time to grieve or process their trauma?

My guess is no, as they are in a hurry to get back to a country called Normal. I fear that in our rush, we will skip over the need to process, to heal, to reflect on what we have learned during this unprecedented time in our history.

In his classic book entitled “Transitions,” author William Bridges talks about the three stages of change. This can be any kind of change—a job loss, a divorce, a death, even a pandemic! These three stages are endings, the neutral zone, and new beginnings. I believe the pandemic was an ending for all of us—the ending of life as we knew it, an end to our presumption of safety. We had hoped that the vaccine would put an end to the pandemic, and we were in a big hurry to get there. But the Delta strain is rearing its ugly head, putting us in a holding pattern. We are officially in the neutral zone.

One might think that the neutral zone will just be more of the same waiting we’ve done for months, but it doesn’t have to be. We can view it as a gift. Consider it an opportunity to slow down, reflect, grieve, rethink the way things have always been, especially in the church. Could we glean lessons from the pandemic in terms of what it means to be the church? To be more compassionate, more open to new ways of doing things, to be grateful for the gift of family and friends—to cherish life because we’ve learned that it can change on a dime.

We need time to heal, not just physically but emotionally as well. Many have suffered from depression and anxiety during the past 18 months, and some may even be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Haven’t we all been traumatized by the multitude of television images of hospitals filled with COVID victims dying alone, nurses and doctors begging for more help and more equipment, breaking down in tears and wondering if they can keep going for another day?

Whether due to COVID or not, we have lost loved ones and still have grieving to do. We need time to weep, to mourn and wail over our losses. We need to lament! Another of our losses was the inability to gather for funerals and memorial services. We lost the ritual of grieving in community. Given our communal grief and trauma, it seems like the natural thing to do would be to heal communally. This might mean a special memorial service for all those we have lost, hosting discussion groups, support groups around grief and/or trauma, or a class on post-traumatic stress. It also means intentional self-care for clergy! Don’t be so focused on your congregation’s well-being that you forget about your own.

The neutral zone can also be a time for discernment to determine which personal and congregational practices to keep and which to throw away. It is the perfect time to assess the old ways of doing church when the new world we’ve been catapulted into may need something entirely different. Do we keep some of the new practices that stretched us into a larger vision of church? What new skills did we learn that can be used in the future? What gifts can we claim that were enhanced by our experience—gifts like compassion, gratitude, and new ways of creating community. It seems to me that this is the perfect time for a visioning process in your churches, a re-evaluation of your mission statement.

It is only in doing the work of the neutral zone that we will be ready for the new thing that God has promised. This is not a time to rush through. Pushing forward too soon, before we’re truly ready, can lead to missteps and poor decisions. This is a time for discernment, for listening to the voice of God for God’s people in this time and place. It is only then that we can fully embrace a new beginning. 

Sue Magrath is a spiritual director and the author of several booksHer previous career spanned fourteen years in the mental health field, where many of her clients were victims/survivors of child sexual abuse and/or sexual assault.

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