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Grace is the Antidote to Shame in Covidian Times

Or, "Coming out of the Covid Closet with a little help from my friends Julian of Norwich, Susan Sontag, and King Lear."

Jessica Riddell

January 8, 2022

In a shaky start to 2022, I tested positive for COVID on January 2.

As I write this from my sick bed (which sounds very Victorian and makes me wish I had invested in a fainting couch), I am struggling to come to terms with Covid.

I had a sore throat December 31st and thought nothing of it.

(I looked up the classic Covid symptoms for the umpteenth time, and this was considered secondary.)

I started to feel exhausted January 1st.

(I thought it was the holidays catching up with me.)

I took a COVID test January 2 – just to be safe.

Thinking I had the flu, you can imagine my surprise when I tested positive for COVID.

In a state of denial (“the home tests skew false positives,” I rationalized), I took another rapid test and had a positive result again.

My husband is a lung cancer survivor (and had a bilobectemy last year), and I have two children with only one vaccine dose under their belts, so I immediately went into quarantine – and concomitantly entered a full shame spiral.

We have been so “Covid careful” for 22 months.

We’ve worked from home. We’ve followed all the health protocols. We mask up, physically distance, sanitize surfaces, wash our hands raw, shop online, and limit social interactions. The almost militant zeal with which we have tried to keep the bogeyman at bay has alienated co-workers and affected social relationships with acquaintances. We’ve had awkward conversations around consent, required family members to take Covid tests before visiting, and judged uncompliant humans who fail to mask up and get vaccinated.

We have been on tenterhooks, stretched to our limits under the ever-present threat of the virus. (Operating in a constant state of vigilance will have long-lasting impacts on mental health and wellness.)

After all this sacrifice, I lamented, how did this happen? I didn’t go anywhere during the winter break except for much needed exercise at our local ski hill (and we were always masked and outdoors). I didn't even go to the grocery store (my husband goes Saturday mornings with other elderly and immuno-compromised shoppers).

Could I have brought this virus into my home and, by doing so, jeopardized the health of my most beloved humans?

In working through the shame, I've realized two things:

1. this virus is irrational, indiscriminate, and vicious; and

2. the narratives around this virus have a moral weight that we need to unpack.

There is a stigma attached to contracting COVID, and it is shaped by fear and shame.

Thankfully, I have a framework for inviting shame to tea (cf. Buddhist practioner Tara Brach) and working through the stages of my discomfort.

Parker Palmer offers us a three-step process: 1. Name; 2. Claim; and 3. Aim.

In navigating my own shame spiral I have had to

  • name these feelings (guilt, shame, anger, confusion, disappointment, rage, despair),

  • claim them by understanding the context (how are we talking about the pandemic and does this shape our responses?),

  • and then aim for grace (with the values of compassion, clemency, and forgiveness).

First, I needed to unpack why I felt shame in admitting I contracted Covid.

What is the epistemology of the Covid closet?

As one of my colleagues recently shared, “The public health messaging coming from politicians around personal responsibility has really messed with our conception of responsibility around this virus.”

This is not a new phenomenon. In early modern England the plague was often associated with moral contagion. Sixteenth-century moralist pamphleteer Philip Stubbes (1583) wrote about the “anatomie of abuses conteining the display of corruptions” and provided an account of “imperfections, blemishes and abuses, as now reigning in euerie degree”.

God, according to Stubbes, enacts vengeance in the form of illness and death.

Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor (1978) challenges the language of victim-blaming associated with diseases. She writes, “Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning - that meaning being invariably a moralistic one.” Sontag suggests that “Any disease that is treated as a mystery and acutely enough feared will be felt to be morally, if not literally, contagious.”

In our life cycles we will be sick and well. As Covid sweeps through our communities, many politicians and public health officials have resigned themselves to managing rather than containing this pandemic (this is deeply unfair on so many levels, and we need to resist these ableist narratives and demand better leadership that keeps our most vulnerable populations safe).

While getting Covid should not be inevitable, none of us are immune to illness. I am reminded of Shakespeare’s King Lear who, at the height of his madness, confronts his own mortality as he realizes that pomp and privilege cannot insulate him from death. He cries: “Go to, they are/not men o' their words: they told me I was every/thing; 'tis a lie, I am not ague-proof” (4.6).

Covid clobbered me, and for several days I struggled to lift my head off the pillow. In my feverish bed-ridden musings, isolated from the rest of my household, I was reminded of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic, who bricked herself up in a cloister and experienced a series of revelations on her sick bed. She recounts a heavenly visitation from Jesus, who reassured Julian:

I have taught Julian of Norwich many times in my Intro to Literature course alongside Margery of Kempe (another, more earthly, mystic) and more canonical texts like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (all these authors knew the personal cost of plague).

Julian's words resonate now as we struggle to find meaning in suffering and sickness. At first blush one might think Julian of Norwich is spouting a brand of toxic positivity (HOW exactly will it all be well, Julian?). It resembles the ça va bien aller refrain so popular in Quebec in the early days of the pandemic. And yet in her meditations she makes room for the sin, the struggle, and the hurt. She takes a long view, illuminated by the virtue of grace.

Grace is the antidote to shame. In a world where very little is under our control, I choose grace as a path forward. I commit to giving myself and others kindness, clemency, and compassion. And as I go into 2022, I am repeating Julian's exhortation as a secular catechism, reminding myself that there is no room for blame or shame in the presence of grace.

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