Grief, Loss and Care Through a Pandemic

by Mark Jackson

A few weeks into the pandemic, I received the call no youth leader wants to get: “One of our teens died in a car accident last night. So did her mom.”

Returning from a Memorial Day weekend trip, a mom, her daughter and the family’s beloved dog died at the scene. Another daughter was airlifted to a trauma center with life-threatening injuries (she later recovered). Dad and a third daughter also survived.

In the days that followed, the limitations our pandemic world put on pastoral care for a grieving family were suddenly apparent. Pastors couldn’t visit the hospital. Shocked friends couldn’t gather (or were cautious about doing so). Family friends wondered how to deliver food. Funeral plans would have to wait. Our middle school director gathered the hospitalized sister’s 6th-grade Confirmation small group, which required sitting outside, six feet apart and wearing face coverings for a solemn conversation amid a strong breeze and mask-muffled voices.

Journeying with others through a time of tragic loss and resulting grief is difficult as it is, but the pandemic restrictions seemed to create distance—physical distance, yes, but also emotional distance from one another. Even still, the Holy Spirit would show up in surprising ways to close that gap. Turns out, God’s love doesn’t have boundaries or limitations.

Losses in a Pandemic

Very few predicted the pandemic’s effects would disrupt our daily rhythms and routines so significantly and for so long. The sudden changes in spring 2020 were thought to be temporary, maybe lasting a few weeks. Soon, however, worship leaders made alternative plans for Holy Week and Easter, and most of our spring and summer programming was changed, if not canceled altogether. (It’s understood that lockdowns and restrictions didn’t happen in every community, though the effects of the pandemic were largely felt by everyone in some manner.)

Other losses began to appear for our families: changes to end-of-year school schedules, with many quickly adjusting to online learning and teachers scrambling to adapt lessons literally overnight. Spring athletics were canceled. Club activities were called off. College students were sent home. Proms and senior parties were cancelled. Parents lost jobs as victims to a plunging economy. High school graduation rituals were altered. Summer employment and internships were no longer possible. The ability to gather socially was abruptly halted with shuttered restaurants, sporting events, theaters and other entertainment options.

At first, it seems the losses were about not being able to do the things we are used to doing. Then we realized the losses were also about who we are meant to be. As news stories emerged of end-of-life moments captured only by electronic devices or left in the hands of health care providers (without family and loved ones present), human relationships obviously took a toll. Children not visiting grandparents and church families unable to gather for worship made us realize that being connected in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) means we actually need to be together!

At Some Level, All Loss is Loss 

More than 50 years ago, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a framework for understanding the grieving process through death and dying. She believed those affected by death experience five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.[1] Mental health professionals have realized these aspects of grief can actually show up in any loss, not just physical death. The loss of a job, the end of a marriage or a sudden change in where you live can all have potentially harrowing effects. Even more, it’s now understood these stages aren’t necessarily linear. Grief rarely follows a prescribed order—and it’s not always predictable.

What the pandemic has magnified, however, are the losses for which there isn’t proper closure or tangible ways to process or grieve. Such “ambiguous loss,” first defined by Pauline Boss, comes in the form of life circumstances for which closure is difficult or altogether absent. [2] The delayed funeral of the mother and daughter mentioned earlier, coupled with limited attendance and physical distancing, didn’t provide the usual opportunity to mark such an important transition for family, friends, and the tight-knit community they lived in. Boss, in fact, believes that ambiguous loss is the most stressful kind of loss because, in part, the grieving process is slowed or frozen.

Ambiguous losses aren’t always recognized at first. Consider the millions of kindergartners who started their formative schooling years in a virtual classroom, missing out on much of what makes that first year so special. What will the long-term effects be? A teenager who moved away from friends without a “goodbye,” those cancelled graduation ceremonies, milestone events (such as my grandparents’ 70th wedding anniversary) that forgo the usual, expected rituals—these situations create an empty feeling inside, that something just doesn’t feel right, that something is lost. These realities may not seem like significant losses in the present, and only later it might be discovered how much they’ve impacted us. 

In the end, any loss is a loss. Whether it results in merely an “oh, bummer” or, in the extreme, is emotionally devastating, ministry leaders are called to accompany and care for those experiencing grief and loss at any level and at any step of the process.

Journeying through Grief and Loss

Here are some practical tips to care for young people and families in their experience of loss.

Be present. Most children, youth and family ministry leaders know that ministry of presence, when few words are spoken, can be among our most significant pastoral care moments. Find ways to “be there” for others, even if not physically. Phone calls, texts and social media messages are ways to make your presence (and care) known.

Read the psalms. The psalms aren’t all about praise. In fact, a significant portion of this biblical prayer book are writings about lament—both for individuals and for the community. A personal favorite is Psalm 40: “I waited patiently for the Lord … He drew me up from the desolate pit.” (NRSV). These psalms of lament remind us it’s acceptable to express our grief, losses, anger and disappointments to our God. They’re equally reminders of hope, trust and God’s faithfulness.

Reclaim rituals and traditions. Many ministry leaders have found ways to continue important rituals during the pandemic, including lighting Advent candles, giving ashes on Ash Wednesday, offering Communion, sharing Bible blessings, holding Confirmation services and more. Families have also found creative ways to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. There’s no secret that celebrating significant milestones continues to provide way-markers for our journey of life and faith and perhaps even more important when physical gatherings are limited. It just takes a little creativity. Encourage families—and your church—to continue or reclaim these important milestone rituals and practices.

Find support. Coping with grief and loss, no matter the magnitude, isn’t meant to be done alone. In some cases, support from qualified mental health professionals is in order. (This is a timely reminder to ensure your list of mental health providers and crisis response services is up to date. Unsure of where to start? Check with your county social services department or a school counselor.) Most counselors are familiar with navigating grief and loss, including the uncertainty of ambiguous loss. Pastors and spiritual directors are another resource. 

Follow up. Losses seem much more bearable when we realize others are there for us. Check in with your people and continue intentional pastoral care, whatever form it can take. One idea: Recalling altered life events a year later might be one way to bring closure for some. Starting conversations with “It was about this time last year when … (graduation was cancelled, your mother died or you were laid off, etc.)” isn’t about reopening old wounds, but acknowledging the grief that likely still hangs in the balance. Calls, texts, messages, note cards, social media posts and public prayers are all ways to provide a timely reminder that you remember these significant life-altering events and that you continue to be there for pastoral support.

Be ready. We’re not sure what will come to the surface as we emerge from this pandemic. Our church’s pastors predict pastoral care needs will only increase, as we realize that our members haven’t properly grieved loved ones who’ve died, have neglected mental health care and emotional support or they’ve suffered the toll of physical and social isolation that will take months of undoing. 

Care for yourself. Don’t forget about your own physical, mental, and spiritual needs even while supporting others. You, too, may have been affected by the length and impact of the pandemic. Resist the urge to be everything for everyone without first caring for your own body, mind and soul. Only then will you be most effective in your ministry.

CYF ministry leaders occupy a sacred place to care for young people and families as they experience the ebbs and flows of grief and loss, in big ways and small ways, expected and unexpected. Remember that, through it all, God remains faithful to them and to you. Psalm 40 (mentioned earlier) concludes, “But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you…You are my help and my deliverer.”

Mark Jackson is director of Children, Youth & Family Ministry at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota, where he leads an 11-person team for birth through high school ministries. He previously served as professor of Children, Youth & Family Studies at Trinity Lutheran College near Seattle.  

[1] Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss (Scribner, 2005).

[2] Pauline Boss, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief (Harvard University Press, 1999).

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