When Paul* started feeling sick, he and Donna weren’t too worried. They were healthy, and they’d been following the CDC’s guidance about COVID-19. Still, they took Paul to the hospital when his symptoms got worse. He tested positive for the novel coronavirus and was admitted. Doctors believed he had a mild case, though, and that supplemental oxygen therapy would turn things around. Donna went home, confident that her husband would join her again soon. She had no idea that grief was coming instead.
Later that day, Paul’s nurse called. Paul had gone into cardiac arrest, and there was nothing they could do to save him. Donna was stunned. In an instant, the one person walking side by side with her through an already-fragile time was gone — and the rest of her world crumbled.
“I’m angry,” she cries. “I’m mad at the doctors for giving me false hope. And I feel guilty for not being with Paul when he died. There can’t be a funeral. I can’t even be with my kids and grandkids. I’m mad at God, too. The love of my life is gone, and nobody can hold me.”
Grief in isolation
Donna’s pain is playing out in countless ways for millions of people in every corner of the world. And whether we’ve lost loved ones to COVID-19 or another cause during this time, one of the greatest challenges for all of us is sorrowing in isolation. What’s needed for healthy grieving hasn’t changed, but how we grieve must look different during a pandemic. And it hurts. It complicates the already-complex struggles of grief.
Think about the hugging and crying and laughing — remembering together in the same space — that’s the norm at funerals and the feasts that follow. We can’t do that for the foreseeable future. Add in the unfortunate tendency for some people who are uncomfortable with grief to avoid the bereaved family in the months after a funeral, and it’s no mystery why dealing with death right now feels overwhelming: We’re physically alone, and we may also be emotionally alone.
“I didn’t expect the loneliness of suffering,” writes Michele Cushatt in Relentless: The Unshakeable Presence of a God Who Never Leaves:
But I’ve learned that no matter the hours and days and weeks I invest in trying to explain the complexities and consuming loss I can find no words equal to the task. Try as they might to understand, a witness to a hard journey can’t know what it’s like to walk it…
… Those who suffer will tell you without hesitation: to live after loss comes at steep cost. Someone recently asked me, “What’s the hardest thing for you right now?” It didn’t take me long to answer. “The choice I make every day to wake up and live.”
COVID-19 and cumulative grief
We’re not the first generations in history faced with the challenge of grieving alone, of finding closure without a funeral. But physical separation was tough on our grandparents and great-grandparents, and it’s tough on us.
Healthy grief involves all our senses — and a viewing and funeral are physical, deeply emotional rituals that help us go through the process of making death real. Without seeing an actual body and having a concrete outlet for grief, we might have trouble accepting that our loved one is dead.
What makes things even harder now is that we can easily fall into avoidance and denial. Under normal circumstances, a funeral is (in a way) like an appointment that overshadows everything else; it forces us to pay attention. However, in isolation, we can choose not to pay attention.
And that comes with different but equally harmful risks: We might ignore or pretend away the reality of death — or we might become consumed with the painful circumstances of our loss and neglect our own healing moving forward.
Another layer of the struggle is our natural human instinct during crisis to survive and press on. We usually don’t have so many things thrown at us at once, but death isn’t all we’re processing right now. COVID-19 has brought countless other secondary losses aside from isolation, including the security of our resources and health.
It all adds up to complicated and cumulative grief: One loss on top of another with no escape, no relief valve. Like trying to keep 20 beach balls under water at the same time. As soon as you push one down and reach over to deal with another, the first one pops back up. Is it any wonder we’re struggling for a foothold?
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis
What it looks like to grieve well
We find ourselves with shattering sorrow, in unfathomable circumstances, and somehow, to our great surprise, still alive. How do we make the choice every day to wake up and get out of bed? How are we supposed to move forward when death has stolen the ones we love, the ones who gave meaning and purpose to our days? How do we grieve — and grieve well — when the world itself is falling apart around us?
“When life is beyond human repair,” says Douglas Groothuis, “we should not try to repair it.” That’s key. There is no repairing, no fixing, no putting it back to the way it was. If we try, we’re denying the truth that only God is God. We would be denying the truth of His loving care about every part of our shredded hearts — and that He grieves with us.
God never asks us not to grieve. Far from it. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4, ESV). God is near to us in our unshakeable grief. And it’s good that we cry and weep and mourn our loss. No platitudes, no false expectations, just the tears of a weary, wounded heart. The honest lament of talking to God about our pain.
“One of the things you find in people who haven’t suffered much is that they tend to believe in propriety,” wrote Dallas Willard. He’s right. We need to set aside preconceptions about what we expected our loved one’s death — and our grief — to look like.
But how? During this pandemic, death is often an ambiguous grief: The one we loved is physically gone but very much with us psychologically. How can we possibly face such a cruel sorrow, much less embrace it? One choice at a time.
We voice our grief publicly, even if that only means our inner circle. Wounds can’t fester if they’re brought into the light. Those who aren’t grieving our direct loss might feel reluctant or uncertain about reaching out because they don’t know what to say or do. But for their sake as much as ours, we need to ask them to walk alongside us.
We purposefully interrupt ourselves to make grief a priority. There may not be a physical funeral, but we can let our supervisor know what’s going on and that we need to take time off. We can message our team that we’ll be offline for a day or two.
We choose to be gentle with ourselves. We know that grief leads to other emotions, and that they’re all part of honestly handling our sorrow. So we pay attention to any anger and depression, and we reach out for help.
And most importantly, we remember. We pull out old cards and letters and videos and voicemails. We invite others to join us for an online memorial service and to share their memories of our loved one. We create our own personal rituals to say goodbye. (This is especially important for children because they think concretely.)
We remember the one we loved and ask God for the grace to connect their life with their death. Because here’s the truth: It’s not that they’re living or dead, it’s that they lived and they died. When we acknowledge both, we’re accepting the reality of their death and the impact of their life. We can grieve our loss but honor what remains — what we will always have.
It’s not easy. “When a loved one dies, you focus on what you lose,” writes H. Norman Wright in Experiencing the Loss of a Family Member. “You rarely focus on what you do not lose.”
You feel the loss of a loved one’s presence most acutely in your daily life. Every moment you’re aware of the absence. You have also lost the presence of this person in the ongoing story of your life.
But you haven’t lost the years you lived with him or her; you have the past. You can continue to love and cherish the story of an earthly life that is now over. Your loved one’s death does not cancel his or her life or your history together. As you relive and retell the stories again and again, you will discover something new each time. Events in your life will remind you of the person and his or her continuing importance to you. Your life was shaped by who this person was; who he or she was can move you, strengthen your values and make a difference in your world.
The paradox of joy and sorrow
In one of the greatest paradoxes on earth, joy and sorrow aren’t opposites. In fact, grief is the road that leads to renewed hope — if we let it.
The sooner we let ourselves feel our sorrow, talk about it, and process it, the greater our likelihood of emerging from the shadows with our integrity intact and our faith more resilient. “If you don’t get [your story] out, it gets a hold in your brain,” points out H. Norman Wright, “and you’re not going to be functional at all.”
At the same time, we can’t make the mistake of thinking that means that we should get through grief quickly. Grief is ongoing, and we need to find the balance between thinking (doing)and feeling. Those who cling to God in grief say without hesitation, “I am not done grieving. This is part of my new normal. I will walk this path until the day that I see Jesus and my [loved one] again.”
Against all human reason, life doesn’t stop with the death of those we love. We still have decisions to make and everyday responsibilities, and we have to take care of what’s in our control. But we also have to create space to sit with our tears.
Grief is never linear; we move in and out of stages based on our own situation. We must slow down, admit this new reality, address any other losses we haven’t yet grieved appropriately, and limit exposure to anything that keeps us from a healthy way forward.
And by facing that reality for as long as it takes — submitting to its questions, learning its lessons, taking it on, staring it down, punctuating it with rest and what laughter we can muster — we may stumble on to find new wisdom and purpose … and be surprised by the gifts we now have to offer.
The Making of Us, Sheridan Voysey
We have to face our grief
There’s no getting around the chaotic, disruptive burden of mourning. There’s no avoiding it, either — at least, not without consequences to our wellbeing. We can only go through. We have to wade into the mess, the confusion and anger and agony. We have to wrestle with grief. We have to wrestle with God in our grief.
Consider Job’s life. In unimaginable loss and suffering, he asked God why 16 times — and he never got an answer. But, says H. Norman Wright, “it’s important to talk about Why, God? because it’s not just a question.”
It’s a cry of protest. And eventually that cry of protest turns from Why? to What can I learn through this? How can I grow through this? And maybe, maybe, how can God be glorified through this? One of the things that I tell people is that no tragedy is ever wasted in God’s economy.
“What to Do When Tragedy Impacts Your Family,” Part I and Part II
It’s OK to cry out to God. The days are darker right now, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about our lives and our country and our world. Remember: God doesn’t tell us not to grieve. Instead, He tells us to grieve with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). “The heart of what it means to grieve with hope is to grieve with a sense of confidence that God’s resurrection promises are really true,” encourages Nancy Guthrie.
We know too well the reality of anguish. May we also come to believe that our sorrow is sacred, and may we firmly trust in the sustaining hand of God.
When we are the ones who are grieving, what is far more important than what other people say to us is what we say to ourselves — what we say to ourselves in between sobs, when we have more questions than answers, when the emptiness feels overwhelming, when anger is getting a foothold in our heart.
When the grief is fresh and intense, we might take some wild ideas for a test drive, but to move toward healing and return to joy requires that we press this one idea deeply into our souls until it begins to impact us at the level of our feelings: “I can trust God with this.”
“Six Words to Say Through Tears,” Nancy Guthrie
* Identifying details have been changed to maintain the confidential nature of real-life stories.
More suggestions to help you process grief
Grief is very personal, and it looks different for everyone. You’ll hear people say, “There’s no wrong way to grieve.” And that’s true as long as you commit to grieving in healthy ways. Would you let us help you figure out what that looks like?
Call us for a consultation. Our licensed or pastoral counselors would be honored to hear your story — the story of your loved one. They can pray with you and help you plan practical next steps as you walk through this season. They can also suggest referrals to qualified counselors and Christian therapists in your area.
In the meantime, our Counseling team has offered further insight below. Keep in mind that grief doesn’t follow a straight path; you’ll move in and out of these stages and tasks. We share them here simply so you can recognize and voice what you’re going through. (We also encourage you to dig into the recommended resources that follow at the end.)
Five stages of grief (Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler)
- Denial. Shock. Disbelief. How could something so catastrophic have happened when other people’s lives go on as normal?
- Anger. This is a common outcome of the anxiety and loss of control you may feel when your loved one has died.
- Bargaining. You might revisit the circumstances of your loved one’s death over and over, wishing you could have done something differently — perhaps even wishing that you could have taken your loved one’s place.
- Depression. As you realize how this loss has affected your life, you might experience crying, changes in sleep and appetite, and trouble concentrating.
- Acceptance. You may still feel sad, but you can move forward.
Four tasks of mourning (J. William Worden, Ph.D.)
- Accept the reality of loss.
- Experience the pain of grief.
- Adjust to an environment where your loved one is missing.
- Find an enduring connection with the deceased while reinvesting energy in life.
Six R’s of mourning (Therese Rando, Ph.D.)
- Recognize the loss.
- React. Let yourself feel your emotions and pain — about your loved one’s death and all the secondary losses involved.
- Recollect and re-experience. This is remembering, as we described earlier
- Relinquish. Accept what has changed and that there’s no turning back.
- Readjust. Return to daily life.
- Reinvest. Form new commitments and possibly new relationships.
Strategies to help you manage and work through loss
- Affective (emotional). Make time to vent your emotions. Let yourself cry, and connect with others emotionally. Pay attention to your limits, though. Don’t get caught in a downward spiral. Find your ratio of feeling to doing (like we talked about in the article).
- Cognitive (mental). Logically break down your experience so you can understand, accept, and better manage it. Learn about the grief process. Be aware of situations that could set you back and avoid them (for example, too much exposure to current news). But also figure out times that work to focus on your grief. Find meaning in your loss. How has it changed or broadened your assumptions about life, about your worldview?
- Behavioral (actions). Exercise. Eat healthy meals. Take a nap. Create a tangible memorial for your loved one (even something as simple as painting a small rock that you keep on your windowsill or in your garden). Find ways to direct your energy without turning to addictive or harmful actions (such as substance abuse or inappropriate sexual behaviors).
- Spiritual. (Spiritual strategies for working through loss obviously weave throughout the other three strategies.) Spend time praying and reading your Bible every day. Be honest with God about your feelings and ask Him to help you find new meaning and purpose. Ask Him to help you believe His love.