Processing grief amid pandemic

April 26th, 2020
This article is featured in the Growing Spiritually issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Different kinds of grief 

It’s undeniable that we are currently living through a season of loss. At first, many of us lost events and vacations that we had been looking forward to. Then, we lost our sense of normalcy and, perhaps, safety. Next, we lost important aspects of our stability, including our routines and our social connections. Now, many of us are facing the loss of jobs, futures, and even, most tragically, friends and family members. 

While we may crave a return to normalcy, we must also recognize that even in the best of times it is normal to mourn these small losses, let alone the compounded griefs of a global disaster. The losses we’re experiencing would be particularly difficult to adjust to even if we had our “normal” lives and social activities in which we could take solace. It takes time for our minds, our hearts and our bodies to process any kind of change, and this is doubly true of changes of this magnitude. 

Collectively, we are experiencing several kinds of grief at once. We’re grieving spring plans and Easter-season traditions. We’re grieving things we never thought we could lose, like the closure of our favorite parks and businesses or the ability to attend church. Many of us are dealing with ambiguous losses, for instance, a new college graduate grieving a job they never got the opportunity to have. We might feel a huge sense of loss about our inability to visit family members even though we are still in contact with them remotely. Beyond this, we grieve with friends and even with strangers for their losses that don’t directly affect us. Finally, most of us feel some kind of anticipatory grief where we are trying to process expected losses that haven’t happened yet, but which we fear will occur due to the loss of our basic sense of safety in the face of an invisible threat and an uncertain future. 

Our culture is often focused on “positive thinking” in unhealthy ways that tempt us to skip over grief and rush through the process of dealing with it. Sometimes we may even wonder why grieving friends or family members haven’t moved on yet. But, in this time of communal loss, we are given an opportunity to make space for sadness as an unavoidable part of life. We are invited, in this time as in all time, to “bear one another’s burdens” even as we carry the weight of our own. 

How grief works 

Grief is an important emotion in our lives. Our bodies, minds, and hearts need to process the changes and losses that we feel in these difficult times. Taking time to mark a loss and admit that it hurts allows us to eventually accept the fact that the world has changed. 

Many people are familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While these stages are useful signposts that help us name our feelings and recognize them as normal, they are not a road map on how to deal with grief, and they rarely occur along a linear process. Instead, as most people who have mourned a close family member or friend can attest, grief is unpredictable. It’s perfectly normal to return to different stages at different times. It is normal to spend a long time in one stage or another despite the feeling that one should be able to “move on.” It is normal to feel happy while still grieving deeply, normal to be overwhelmed by emotions in response to small triggers, and it is normal to be thrown from a state of peaceful acceptance back into the upheaval of grief all over again. 

We aren’t always great at giving ourselves the time and space to experience our emotions. As a culture, we tend to believe that focusing on rational thoughts, attending to productivity or working hard enough at grief will allow us to avoid the discomfort and move through the process as quickly as possible. The truth is, our bodies hold God-given wisdom, and they know how we need to grieve if we are willing to trust them. Jesus experienced the fullness of humanity, and this is never more obvious than when he expressed his emotions, which was often. These episodes in Jesus’ life give us permission to feel our awkward, inconvenient, necessary feelings — and he shares them with us. 

Grieving together 

Many psychologists add a sixth stage to the stages of grief: finding meaning. When we’ve accepted that a loss is part of our life, we enable ourselves to see how that loss is also part of a story of love and resilience. 

We always need others to witness our pain and help us grieve, but this is all the more important in the midst of a global tragedy. Just as our pain is a collective reality, we also share our grief. Acknowledging our anger and sadness together can be a powerful step toward strengthening community and making meaning in this moment. 

We aren’t necessarily used to grieving together. Learning to fully experience our grief and to do it together (even while physically distanced) might take creativity and courage. Like Job’s friends, church communities too often try to offer solutions or explanations to people who really just need the caring and compassionate presence of fellow human beings. We may even chastise ourselves for grieving “too much” or “doing it wrong”! But this is a time of massive loss, and it’s important to be gentle with ourselves and with others and to avoid looking away or trying to rush past suffering. This can be a time when compassion becomes not just a duty but a part of who we are. 


Comparative suffering 

While it’s true that everyone is grieving something right now, it’s also true that the losses suffered by some are objectively bigger or worse than the losses of others. As a result, we often hear or say things like “I’m frustrated/sad/tired, but at least . . . I have a home/I’m still healthy/I haven’t lost a family member.” While it can be healthy to put our problems in perspective, especially when we can creatively hold the tension between grief and gratitude, it’s not helpful to diminish anyone’s suffering, including our own. 

Emotion researcher Brené Brown tells us that the impulse to compare suffering comes from a perception that empathy is a scarce resource. We unconsciously believe we need to “save” empathy or emotional resources for people who are suffering the worst. But comparing suffering instills a subtle kind of shame within us where we deem our emotions improper or unworthy. It keeps us from processing our feelings in healthy ways and puts us on the path to breakdown or burnout. On the other hand, having empathy for ourselves and our loved ones increases our well-being and allows us to continue having empathy for others. 

When allocating actual scarce resources such as money or intensive emotional support, we may want to ensure that these are directed to those dealing with a death in their family or major trauma, but we all need at least a little space for our grief and plenty of empathy for ourselves.

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