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Spring 2023 · Vol. 52 No. 1 · pp. 28–40 

Learning to Grieve in a New World: A Pastoral Reflection

Quentin Kinnison

We bereaved are not alone. We belong
to the largest company in all the world —
the company of those who have known
suffering.

–Helen Keller, We Bereaved

Grief is complicated. I do not mean in the technical sense of Complicated or Prolonged Grief, a debilitating grief diagnosed by psychologists and therapists. 1 I do mean in the general sense that everyday grief is a complicated thing. We grieve for many different reasons: death of a loved one, loss of a hoped-for dream, missed opportunities, unmet expectations, and so on. 2 Grief affects us in our totality: emotionally, mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually. It is everywhere, yet hidden as if nonexistent. People live as if they are without sorrows, pain, and grief. Yet just below the surface are gaping wounds where love and sorrow meet. {29} And the smallest of things—a song, a picture, a familiar sound, a scent—can bring to the surface the outworking of that grief in tears and mourning. It can be surprising and overwhelming, even decades later. Yes, grief is complicated. How much more so when the world seems in complete disarray? The compounding nature of grief in such a world exacerbates the complexity of our personal and common experience.

If we are to love one another well, it will require that we remain present to those who grieve.

In March 2020, we entered a new world of grief. During the COVID-19 pandemic, much of how we lived life was put on hold, including many of our most important rituals for mourning loss and entering grief. At a time of catastrophic loss of life, there were fewer resources for grieving those losses than before. So how did we grieve? What does it look like to grieve without a familiar support system? What adaptations have we made that might carry us forward into the future?

In December 2019, my mother died of pancreatic cancer in Arizona. It was a short illness with an abrupt ending. We were able to attend her memorial service in January, then returned home to California. My father was left to his new reality with us hundreds of miles away. We had determined to visit more frequently and care for him as he grieved and adjusted. Then, in March 2020, “shelter-in-place” orders came. Reflecting on this experience of my own grief journey, with support from research in ministry and psychology, I offer some thoughts on what I think we have learned about grieving in the pandemic/post-pandemic world. I do not assume these are the only lessons, only that these are lessons that seem pronounced to me on my own journey. I hope my reflections will be meaningful to others as well.

THE ILLNESS

A 2021 study confirmed that the experience of loneliness increased among oncology patients from a lower end range of 32 percent pre-pandemic to 53 percent during the pandemic. The study concludes that “being unmarried, higher levels of social isolation, as well as membership in the high depression and anxiety groups, were significant predictors of membership in the lonely group.” 3 The importance of social support for those going through the grief of illness by themselves is self-evident.

At the time of my mother’s diagnosis, around Thanksgiving, she had a stroke, likely a symptom of the cancer. While not the first sign of problems, the stroke was an urgent sign. It was life-changing for my mother who had always been a gregarious gardener and an active person. During the weeks leading up to a final diagnosis of stage four cancer, there were doctor’s visits, rehab, and a hospital stay. My father was at her side every moment. He slept at the hospital, was with her during rehab, and attended every doctor’s appointment. Likewise, my family in the area (a {30} brother-in-law, nephews and their families, an uncle, and cousins) were with them as often as possible. The faith community and friends from years of ministry and service also came to visit them.

Because of my own health condition, I was unable to travel to see my parents in person, but I knew they had a strong support group of people closeby. This was a comfort to them and to me. I was able to video call them nearly every night to check in and get regular updates, which assured them that they were not alone even as I participated in this process with them from a distance. The illness alone evoked grief as my mother and we experienced the loss of her mobility, wit, and mischief. We all experienced the comfort of each other’s presence; ours was mediated by video, but my parents were especially comforted by those present in person.

At Christmas, we were finally able to travel. During the days we spent in Arizona I was able to hold my mother’s hand, to tell her I love her, and to assure her that we’d care for one another after she was gone. I witnessed my parents’ love and enduring commitment to each other in the worst of situations. And I saw Mom’s faith. During her sadness and her pain (physical and emotional), she was still able to hold on to a love for Christ that gave her hope, even as we did the same anticipating her absence.

As I reflect on this experience, I am mindful that during the pandemic so many people had much different experiences. For starters, as the number of cases rose, hospitals, doctor’s offices, and other medical contexts closed to all but essential services. Many who could get appointments with the doctor for treatments had to go alone, and many appointments were moved to video or phone visits. As I think of my parents, their grief at receiving the bad news of my mother’s cancer diagnosis was mediated by the presence of family and friends who were present with them and helped them carry the weight of this news. The compassion of nurses and other hospital personnel through their touch and warmth was profoundly comforting as my parents dealt with the gravest of information.

At the height of the pandemic, despite the courageous and desperate attempts of hospital personnel (nurses, doctors, chaplains, and technicians), many patients were forced to endure these experiences alone. To limit the spread of the virus, hospitals restricted even close family members from visiting their loved ones. FaceTime and other video chat methods became lifelines for patients and their families. Often, these visits were negotiated by nurses and aides who helped loved ones say goodbye to dying family and friends. And amidst the horrible decision between mitigating the deadly spread of the virus and showing genuine humanity and care for patients, medical professionals tried new ideas. Some printed their faces on placards or masks to show patients the human being under the layers of protective gear. Video consultations with doctors and mental {31} health professionals were lifelines for those unable to come to an office. For the short-term, these remote consultations mitigated the effects of not being touched or visited.

Lessons

What we learned in this new world is that with all the sterility and scientific detachment of medicine as a field of study and as a profession, the human need for connection, for compassion and love, is still critical. Christian theology emphasizes that being created in the image of God means human beings are made for community. 4 And while we found ways to mediate the challenges of the contagions of isolation and loneliness through video and other means, we were reminded that as helpful and necessary as these tools may be at times, they cannot replace the physical presence of a living person as people experience loss and grief.

An in-depth qualitative study in the Review of Religious Research found that pastors were comfortable managing most their tasks in the virtual environment. The exception was pastoral care. “Pastors told us that pastoral care required physical co-presence and as a result could not be effectively re-done under the health restrictions.” 5 While many pastors found virtual worship a practice they would continue, most concluded that “they would be glad to see ‘digitally distanced pastoral care . . . go away.’ ” 6 None of the pastors surveyed were satisfied with their ability to give adequate pastoral care during the pandemic. 7 A much larger study of chaplains found the same dissatisfaction. They pointed to loss of presence and touch as among the most important aspects of spiritual care that were lost. 8

THE FUNERAL/MEMORIAL AND THE AFTERMATH

My mother died at the end of 2019. To accommodate those family and relatives who wished to attend, we scheduled the memorial service in mid-January 2020. The service was attended by some nearly four hundred people. It was an overwhelming and beautiful experience of remembrances, mourning, and laughter. I was able to speak of my mother’s life and faith. Friends related stories of her care and compassion. And my father spoke of God’s love in giving him a soulmate. But the most life-giving part of the event was connecting to family and friends, telling the stories, and sharing our grief with others who also were grieving. The weight of my mother’s death was lighter for having others to share it with at the service.

After the service, family and my parent’s closest friends gathered at my parent’s home for a meal provided by the church along with family and friends. We ate, laughed, cried, and remembered together. The normative practice in some cultures of this kind of meal is another, less formal, {32} memorial. Rather than the formality of a service where schedule and agenda drive the sharing, people gather in smaller groups to tell their stories. They learn things about the deceased that were only known in other circles: work friends sharing stories with family, aunts and uncles sharing stories with the deceased person’s children, church community sharing stories with family. And there is the importance of food. The exhaustion of loss makes the menial tasks like cooking more difficult. But in tangible ways, the bringing of food to a family experiencing grief in those early days after the death and funeral/memorial demonstrates love and connection.

Dr. Ronald Smith, managing director of Sterling and Smith Funeral Service locally, recently spoke to a class of pastoral students about his work with pastors and churches. He noted the shift during COVID-19, that many times families were alone during services, with others joining via Zoom or some other streaming or video platform. It was an essential element of managing the pandemic and preventing further virus spread. The isolation created by this necessary adjustment meant that families were left carrying that weight alone. While in-person services like these can be difficult and awkward—some people can say the most unhelpful or unkind things—mostly they are a comfort. Seeing a room of people who love the person you love and who share your grief is meaningful. It distributes the weight of the grief to a larger community for a time. The funeral and the conversations immediately before and after also become a source of comfort as the grieving remember how people cared for you and your loved one. While video offers people at a great distance access to the reminiscing (certainly a benefit for those watching virtually), it cannot replace the comfort of community for the grieving family. Unlike a Zoom or conference call where parties can see and engage one another virtually, most funerals were unidirectional: the family sits in a room alone while others watch as disembodied witnesses to the proceedings. Most families are likely unaware of the virtual participants.

Under “normal” circumstances, it is not uncommon for the family, close friends, and even a church community to gather for a meal after the service and engage in an extended time of communal remembrance of the deceased loved one. The tangible act of sharing food and meals together became impossible with shelter-in-place orders and concerns about virus-spreading events (gatherings where the COVID-19 virus could easily be spread to a wider community). The inability to connect immediately following a service made it harder, if not impossible at times, for the cross-sharing of stories of meaning. These resources were lost to the family and close friends who often hold those stories as ways of cherishing the life of their loved one and their lasting influence. Again, {33} this was all necessary; but its necessity should not prevent us from seeing its deficiencies.

Lessons

Mediated presence through platforms like Zoom or Facebook Live may have a place in our new post-pandemic world, allowing people to participate from a distance in the remembrance service. It is unlikely to disappear as a tool for such. But it is not a replacement for in-person services like wakes, funerals, or memorials. We should learn from this experience that literally millions of people during a pandemic (where over one million people have died from the virus alone, adding to the compounding nature of our grief) have lived through grief and mourning under these conditions. Most who grieve are missing the resources these services provide and thus miss opportunities to hear stories of their loved one’s impact on others or feel the warm embrace of a sympathetic mourner. These deficits should be recognized as factors that complicate and prolong the grief in the technical sense.

A 2022 study that investigated the role of the COVID-19 pandemic on funerals, grief rituals, and prolonged grief symptoms did not find conclusive evidence that mourning and grief during COVID-19 was more likely to be complicated or prolonged. However, there were indicators that mourners had compensated for the loneliness with new rituals. 9 For instance, in one relatively small study, researchers found that “due to the lack of emotional supports, some participants used virtual networks to share the grief of the loss, to observe the funeral, and to express their empathy. However, as the participants reported, this virtual mourning was considered an unreal and unauthentic experience and could not replace the real encounter with the death of the loved one and the relief by the physical presence of others.” This furthered the sense of loneliness experienced by the small numbers of people at funerals. 10

Pastors, churches, and others should keep in mind that they can help offset these deficits, 11 even while helping those struggling with Complicated Grief find therapy resources. 12 Annual services of remembrance at church (often on Memorial Day) can be opportunities for grieving people to remember loved ones, share stories, and rediscover their connections with others who also grieve. All Saints Day is a time of such remembering in some traditions; others do this at Blue Christmas or Christmas Mourning services. And if these days of remembrance can include a communal meal, they could re-establish the connectivity lost during the pandemic isolation. There is something mystical about eating in community, as the early church understood well. {34}

MISSING COMMUNITY

In the days following my mother’s memorial, as the shelter-in-place orders took effect, we found connecting to our community difficult. By community I mean those persons and groups of people who are the greatest source of encouragement, support, and life to us. For most Christ followers this includes our faith community or church. In addition, we have those circles of close friends and colleagues with whom we share life. And of course, for most of us, family (immediate and extended) is a source of significant life. When my sister died in 2012, I was surrounded by my wife, child, and close friends. I was free to be sad with them, to talk about the hard days, and to remember the good. With my parents, we could speak openly of my sister Vandi, laughing and crying as we did. It was an extraordinary season of support.

After my mother’s death, I was grateful for my wife’s and my child’s constant presence and comfort. But I knew they were grieving as well. I have amazing friends who did their best through mediated conversations (video, phone, or messaging) to still walk with me. But unlike in the past when I could just walk into an office or drop by and share where I was at, it was all more distant. It is important to remember that we were all experiencing the trauma of a catastrophic global pandemic. The emotional, spiritual, and social resources we might have had in reserves for caring for each other were spent trying to make sense of our loss throughout these nearly three pandemic years. Pre-pandemic, we often recalled our own past losses in order to walk with people in their present grief. But what does that look like when we are all present grieving? The pandemic griefs were compounded by the loss of normalcy, the loss of jobs, by disappointed expectations, and of course, the loss of health, life, and safety. These added to the complexity of our losses.

The most difficult part of this season for me was watching my father navigate the loss of his spouse of fifty-two years and being unable to be with him while he was denied physical access to his community of support. Before my mother’s death, I would call once or twice a week to check in. But after her death, and as the shelter-in-place orders took effect, it felt more imperative to check in daily. These thirty-to-forty-five-minute visits were opportunities to make sure he was well; eating and taking care of himself. In addition, it was time spent talking about my mother, telling the stories, trying to make sense of the cancer, her death, and our mutual loss. These video calls were something, and they were meaningful to both of us. But it would be false to claim they were sufficient for fully processing the loss we were feeling.

To that point, the connection, the touch, being able to put your arms around another person and cry on each other’s shoulders is what I think {35} Paul means when he reminds us in Romans 13:15 to “rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.” This was the experience of “grief groups” like Grief Share and others. Pre-COVID-19, the gathering and sharing of pain, life, love, joy, and grief in groups of fellow travelers on grief’s journey allowed for the appropriate touch and shared experiences of the journey. During COVID-19 shelter-in-place, some groups stopped meeting altogether while others chose to utilize the Zoom or other video options. The same was true for many therapists. These video meetings were a helpful bridge for many during the height of the shelter-in-place orders. But as has been stated earlier, helpful may not mean sufficient.

Lessons

A community who cares well is essential for the healthy and natural processing of grief. It needs to be said that even under the best of circumstances, such community can be hard to find. This explains why hospices, churches, and others offer grief support groups and why grief therapy is in demand. There is a general need for communities, and I would argue especially the church, to become better informed about good companioning practices for walking with people who grieve. Under less-than-optimal contexts, some of this community connection can be mediated virtually, but again, as some of the research cited above indicates, it would be shortsighted to assume virtual care is sufficient for best care. The loneliness of grief is best mitigated by a caring community willing to be present in the grief without trying to fix it.

MISSING CLOSURE

I find the word “closure” unhelpful when speaking of grief, though it is one we often use. What we usually mean by “closure” is more likely resolve or acceptance than a closing of grief. By resolve, I mean that there is an understanding of the permanence of the loss with which one learns to live. I contend that grief is a life-long experience that endures because the love that binds the deceased to us is still present. But such grief changes as we experience the resolve of the absence of our loved ones and learn to live with the love expressed in the longing for and missing of the person who has died. This resolve or acceptance comes over time as the initial stabbing pain of loss becomes a dull ache of longing for renewed connection. Or to use a different metaphor, the tidal waves of grief become less frequent, replaced with a more constant lapping of the reminder of a loss still present.

My mother’s death left a void in our family, and especially in my father’s life. As shelter-in-place orders lifted and attempts at normalcy began, my father began reconnecting with his community and re-establishing his life. {36} For him the incarnational care and presence of community was helpful in his moving into resolve. For me, it was less possible because of an immune-condition that leaves me still vulnerable to the worst possible outcomes of a potential COVID-19 infection. So, as he was re-establishing his life and beginning to move into new connections and relationships, I was still in my cocoon of grief. Since leaving my parents’ house in January of 2020, I have not been able to return home, to see it without my mother but with her touches everywhere; to remember her voice, her uniqueness, her life, her wisdom, and her love as expressed through all the small details in her home. I have not been in the living room to see her empty seat or in her kitchen to see it unused. In many ways it is still January 2020 for me.

When my father began showing interest in a new friend, whom he later dated and married, I was surprised at how hard it was for me. I know my mother well enough to know that she would want my father to be happy and to have love in his life again. My father certainly did not rush into a relationship. He took time to grieve well. And he admits that even today he grieves my mother’s loss. But I wrestled with knowing that the home I knew as my mother’s home was gone, and I was never able to say that good-bye. Under pre-COVID-19 circumstances, I would have been present to clean out my mother’s closet or help tear down the makeshift enclosed garden my mother had set up. I missed my father’s presence and comfort as we would have inevitably cried together—our own incarnational experience.

I am simultaneously happy for my father and deeply mourn my mother as if it were a new loss. The confusion of the moment requires careful awareness and attention so that I am able both to find new ways of moving to resolution and to love and care well for my father as he moves forward on his journey in life. Their house will change (as it should), but I have missed an important marker in my resolution, my acceptance. Missing the important ritual of watching change occur over time makes it a jarring and abrupt change. Sadly, COVID-19 has robbed me of the gradual process of resolve that would have come with each of these transitional rituals.

Lessons

Resolve/acceptance takes time. It occurs as we grieve old patterns and familiarities and discover new patterns and develop new familiarities. The chaotic and disruptive contexts created by COVID-19 and our attempts to manage the pandemic has disrupted those patterns and time frames for many. Because of the disconnected ways we have experienced grieving, we emerge into a world at various places in our grief, even when we grieve the same person. Perhaps differences in grief are more typical than {37} we realize as grief is a highly individualized process. I am mindful that what some consider a “normal” process of grief may be impossible to experience because of how our society tries to get us to “move on.” And maybe that, too, is a lesson we can learn in this moment. But somehow these differences in our grief experiences seem more pronounced and disorienting in our COVID-19 changed world.

Patience and care will be needed to navigate the strangeness of these discrepancies. Again, creating awareness of this phenomenon and generating opportunities to name and process the experiences are ways pastors and congregations can help people work toward some sense of resolution. But it would be unhelpful for us to act as if nothing unusual has happened and leave people alone in the chaos and disruption. The truth is that this revelation shows us how many in “normal” contexts are similarly prevented from this natural progression of grief. Pastors, chaplains, and others who care for grieving people would be wise to consider how this disruption affects those people.

CONCLUSION

How do we become and remain present to people who are grieving? As a person who researches, teaches, and has practiced pastoral care related to grief, the story of Ruth inspires me. Those familiar with Ruth know that the context is one of loss. Naomi (Ruth’s mother-in-law) loses her husband and two sons, including Ruth’s husband, while living in a strange land. Without resources to sustain her, Naomi determines to return to her people, so she urges Ruth and Orpah (her other daughter-in-law) to leave her and return to their families of origin. Orpah does so. But Ruth stays with Naomi, even though Naomi renames herself “Bitter” because of the deaths she has experienced. Ruth stays present, even while experiencing her own grief. And the kind of presence Ruth demonstrates may be more necessary than ever as we attempt to resolve our individual and collective grief caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While this has been a more reflective look at pastoral care and grief and the things we might learn through our common experience of the disruption brought by COVID-19, I am convinced that much of what COVID-19 did was expose rather than cause the difficulties revealed here. First, we need others as we experience grief. Communities and people who care can help us as we walk those journeys; they carry some of the burden with us and provide us space and welcome to tell the stories, to cry, to be angry, and to laugh as we move toward resolution or acceptance of our losses. When done well, the typical experiences provided through the process give us all opportunity to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2). Our experience with COVID-19 reveals how important these {38} rituals and connection are by exacerbating their absence. But sadly, even under typical circumstances, grief too often remains a lonely experience. People often show up for the initial crisis moments. But the discomfort of remaining in that grieving experience for longer stretches of time causes many who are initially present to move on. Grieving persons are often left grieving alone and/or pretending to be “happy,” or having to resolve their grief too quickly in order to experience the benefits of community.

Second, we are reminded of the power of storytelling as a means of meaning-making as we grieve. I do not mean making sense of loss, but rather that in telling the stories of our loved ones in the various settings allows us to understand the lost loved one better and to help us understand why our grief is justified. Stories help us to see the love and to reconnect to times before the loss that help us understand why it is a loss. And they comfort us with the knowledge that the person we love is loved by others who grieve their death with us.

Finally, the rituals I discussed above are important, and some of the new ways we have learned to engage those rituals will have a lasting place in our world. Virtual attendance at funerals or memorials will allow for greater access of family and friends across great distances. And engaging virtually with established patients and/or congregants may become a useful tool for therapists, grief counselors, pastors, chaplains, and others. The concern is that virtual meetings not take the place of being physically present to each other at those most critical life moments, such as wakes, funerals, and memorials. There is a growing body of knowledge of how community can best develop in the virtual world. This often happens most readily between community members who have relationships that were first developed in-person. The virtual/digital world largely builds on and expands those pre-existing connections. And the strengthening of these connections is best accomplished in multi-directional venues where interaction can be had between participating parties. Still, such interaction is limited because it has trouble conveying the non-verbal communication so important in intimate face-to-face encounters. 13

The challenge is that many virtual wakes, funerals, and memorials to date do not provide that multidirectional interaction. Further, the emotional energy needed to manage not just engagement with others but also the media technology, not to mention the social awkwardness that multidirectional virtual community creates, is a heavy weight to add to a person already burdened with grief. Add to these challenges the disembodied nature of such experiences and the effect can be dehumanizing. Incarnation is God’s way of being with humanity as humanity so we might be able to hear and experience God’s love as fully as possible. In the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi, I am reminded that Ruth’s gift to Naomi was her {39} enduring presence, even when Naomi was open about her bitterness. If we are to love one another well, it will require that we too remain present with those who grieve.

NOTES

  1. Complicated or Prolonged Grief Disorder is described as, “intense and persistent grief that causes problems and interferes with daily life. . . . The persistent grief is disabling and affects everyday functioning in a way that typical grieving does not,” in “Prolonged Grief Disorder,” American Psychiatry Association, accessed February 10, 2023, https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/prolonged-grief-disorder.
  2. This article will focus on the death of a loved one as the frame of reference for my reflections.
  3. Christine Miaskowski et al., “Loneliness and Symptom Burden in Oncology Patients during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Cancer 127, no. 17 (2021): 3250, https://doi.org/10.1002/cncr.33603.
  4. See Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996).
  5. Erin F. Johnston et al., “Pastoral Ministry in Unsettled Times: A Qualitative Study of the Experiences of Clergy during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Review of Religious Research 64 (2022): 384.
  6. Johnston et al., 385.
  7. Johnston et al., 387.
  8. Anne Vandenhoeck et al., “ ‘The Most Effective Experience was a Flexible and Creative Attitude’—Reflections on Those Aspects of Spiritual Care That Were Lost, Gained, or Deemed Ineffective during the Pandemic,” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 75, 1_suppl. (April 1, 2021): 18, https://doi.org/10.1177/1542305020987991.
  9. Huibertha B. Mitima-Verloop et al., “Restricted Mourning: Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Funeral Services, Grief Rituals, and Prolonged Grief Symptoms,” Frontiers in Psychiatry 13 (May 27, 2022): 878818, http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2022.878818.
  10. Seyede Salehe Mortazavi et al., “Mourning during Corona: A Phenomenological Study of Grief Experience among Close Relatives during COVID-19 Pandemics,” OMEGA: Journal of Death and Dying (July 20, 2021), https://doi.org/10.1177/00302228211032736.
  11. I offer, as a suggested resource for pastors and church leaders, A Road Too Short for the Long Journey: Reflections and Resources to Support Grieving People, ed. Quentin P. Kinnison (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2019). Also, many churches have found GriefShare.org a helpful resource.
  12. A helpful description of Complicated or Prolonged Grief Disorder may be found on the American Psychiatry Association website: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/prolonged-grief-disorder. Additional information and support in finding a therapist can be found on the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy website: https://aamft.org/Consumer_Updates/Bereavement_and_Loss.aspx.
  13. Vandenhoeck et al., “The Most Effective Experience,” 75.
Quentin Kinnison has an MDiv from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary and a PhD in Theology-Practical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Since 2008, he has taught Christian Ministry and Leadership at Fresno Pacific University. He is the editor of, and a contributor to, Road Too Short for the Long Journey: Reflections and Resources to Support Grieving People (Pickwick, 2019).

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