Offering Support for Pandemic Grief

by Joy Hensel

On the Road to Emmaus 

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus about seven miles from Jerusalem and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Luke 24:13-16 NRSV)

In their grief these two followers of Jesus could not see that Jesus had joined them on their journey. Even so, Jesus comes to them and walks with them, listening to their grief.

A few weeks ago, I asked a friend how she was doing, and she said, “I’m pandemic fine. Monday through Friday is like a fire hose. The weekend arrives and we crash, do mountains of laundry and attempt to recover.” More and more often when I ask friends, “How are you today?”, I am greeted with, “I don’t know. I think I am feeling pandemic fatigue.” While I am grateful for a coined term that lends itself to a communal experience, and I appreciate the courage and willingness it takes to name and share that fatigue, what I really hear people saying is: 

  • I feel exhausted.
  • I feel lonely.
  • I feel unmotivated.
  • I feel stressed.
  • I feel confused.
  • I feel disappointed.
  • I feel frustrated.
  • I feel angry.
  • I feel fearful.
  • I feel anxious.
  • I feel depressed.
  • I feel sad.
  • I am grieving.

Grief, defined by The Grief Recovery Method, “is about dealing effectively with the inevitable changes that affect our lives.” The constant uncertainty, lack of control and ever-changing days filled with an immense amount of stressors make it difficult to keep up with our feelings. The layers of loss continue to compound, and our minds, bodies and spirits are weary from holding such heaviness. 

Grief is complex. Did you know that there are a variety of types of grief? Normal, masked, cumulative, complicated, anticipatory, disenfranchised and distorted are just a few. Many individuals are experiencing characteristics of grief such as trouble sleeping, guilt, depression, fear, anger, sadness, worry and anxiety. It can be hard to sort through what is normal behavior at this time and when more support is needed. Grief can be surprising and feel uncomfortable when it starts to surface. When grief is not acknowledged, it can come out sideways as reaction, frustration, anger and controlling and destructive behaviors. When an individual has changes in mood and behavior, when physical symptoms appear, when individuals start to limit what they want or have to do, when they talk about death or suicide, then it is time to reach out to a physician, school social worker or therapist in order to be assessed and see what next steps need to happen. Though there is strength, courage and hope in reaching out for help, it can feel vulnerable and scary to talk about loss and grief and tend to mental health needs.

When did you last ask someone about their grief? Was it comfortable? 

The other day I was asking a senior in high school about his losses throughout the pandemic, and he responded, “Initially, it really messed my friends up, but we don’t talk about it now. It’s too depressing. It’s my senior year, this monumental year, and it’s just gone. I can’t get it back. I can’t turn back the clock.” He continued, “What was normal has been shaken up, and there is no sense of normalcy. Now the losses are dulled. I’m desensitized. It just is. I can’t do anything about it.”

The plethora of losses are impacting our mental well-being and mental health in ways in which we are still learning. In the article, “Growing Resilient Kids Amidst Covid-19,” Natural Mental Health quotes the Stress in America Survey (APA 2019), “The pandemic has led to increased stress and mental health challenges for people of all ages.” It also states that “rates of anxiety, depression, divorce and addiction have increased.” Just from the pandemic there is a list a mile long of stresses that include housing crises, financial difficulties, physical safety concerns, fear of germs, divorce, moving, food insecurity, mental health conditions, illnesses, school transitions, 100% distance learning balanced with parents working from home, loss of normalcy, milestone celebrations, jobs, sports seasons, dreams, independence, playdates and relationships. Added to our pandemic grief are all the layers of loss and grief from political division, structural racism, natural disasters, deaths that occurred before the pandemic that have yet to be memorialized, traumatic losses and so on. 

Lately when I ask people about their loss, I’m greeted with surprise. “I haven’t thought about it. I haven’t lost much.” Next, I hear them list all that they have that makes these days okay. When I asked a parent of three teens about her losses and grief, she didn’t think she was feeling grief. She was feeling disappointment. She shared that her teens had lost a lot of experiences, like summer camp, service trips and competitions for their sports, “but not all kids get to experience those things.” Does that make it less of a loss for them? She paused, “I guess when I stop and think about it, it has been really hard for my kids, especially my oldest. She has lost her independence, the ability to go out and opportunities to connect with friends. I’m curious to ask her what she thinks.” 

Understanding the role of one’s privilege, one’s ability to have and use coping skills and the ability to name gratitude during these different days are all important self-awareness skills. I am noticing that when people realize there is a safe space with an active listener who is not afraid of their grief and acknowledges and validates their feelings, their eyes open. They realize they are not alone. They have been joined on their journey, and their experiences of loss are real. That twisted-up ball of internalized feelings that has been pushed way down in their body begins to uncoil. They are able to come to the realization and admit their pain, their loss and say out loud, “I guess I am grieving.” 

How are you sharing your feelings of loss and grief with others? Have you had an opportunity to write down, acknowledge and name aloud your losses throughout this last year? What would happen if you did? 

In order to show up as journey joiners, space holders, light bearers and bridge builders for youth and families, ministry leaders need to do their own mental health and loss and grief work. Leaders in ministry need to acknowledge their personal feelings with a safe and trusted adult or professional so that they can better learn how to respond to them and have their needs met. When an individual’s personal needs are met, they can better meet the needs of those around them. As ministry leaders, it is integral to tend to your own pain, loss and grief in order to tend to others. Your feelings of grief are real. Your loss and your grief are yours. Grief is not to be compared or judged. Grief isn’t a competition. Your layers of loss are not less than anyone else’s. 

There seems to be a belief that grief happens or is allowed only when someone dies. Grief is how we process our losses. Those losses may be physical, social, occupational or emotional. Grief doesn’t have a time frame. Grief is normal and important because it is how we make sense of what has happened. Grief is the start to healing. Grief during COVID-19 has been interrupted, intensified and, for some, paused. Not being able to be present with loved ones as they die, or not being able to celebrate a life with beloved community, has taken a toll. Kubler-Ross and Kessler in their book “On Grief and Grieving” write “The pain of loss is so intense, so heartbreaking because in loving we deeply connect with another human being, and grief is the reflection of the connection that has been lost. We think we want to avoid the grief, but really it is the pain of the loss we want to avoid. Grief is the healing process that ultimately brings us comfort in our pain. That pain and our love are forever connected.” 

May we strive to create space that intentionally nurtures reconnection, builds trust and encourages belonging. Miriam Greenspan, in her book “Healing Through The Dark Emotions,” states, “Without a listener, the healing process is aborted. Human beings, like plants that bend toward the sunlight, bend toward others in an innate healing tropism. There are times when being truly listened to is more critical than being fed. Listening well to another’s pain is a primary form of nurturance, capable of healing even the most devastating of human afflictions.” 

There is a wide spectrum of experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Depending on family members’ vocation, finances, health concerns, location, weather, technology/internet access and family systems, some youth have had positive experiences, while others may barely be hanging on. Since most of us have not lived through such a time as this, it is helpful to remember that we all have been impacted in some way from the loss of normalcy and constant changes. It is important to remember to follow the lead of the youth for which you work as they process their individualized experiences and layers of loss.

Equipped with courage and grace, we show up and create Holy Ground, where together we listen and learn how we live into all the changes of what life is like now. Together we ask God the tough questions, not expecting answers, yet expecting the Spirit to stir deep within us. Together, in time, our eyes will be opened to the ways Jesus has been walking with us and continues to show up even in our grief. As youth and families process their loss and grief, your job is not to be the expert, but to welcome and invite the experts to educate and support your communities. Reach out to chaplains, grief specialists and therapists within your community. Offer opportunities to youth and families to walk together and listen, while building bridges for them to connect with professionals who are trained to support their specific mental health and grief needs.

You have been called into this vocation and you are not alone. The Holy Spirit is active and at work in you, in youth, in families, in your ministry setting, in our communities and our world, even when we can’t see it or feel it. God is present and is giving you what you need just for today.

God, open our eyes to see you walking with us as we experience grief. And when it is hard to remember that, give us a community to hold us and carry us.

Jesus walks with you and Jesus loves you.

Joy Hensel, MA, LADC, ADC-MN, is from Duluth Minnesota. Joy attended graduate school at Luther Seminary and the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies. Joy’s background in youth and family ministry includes eight years in congregations, and as the Program Director at Voyageurs Lutheran Ministry. Joy has worked as an outpatient chemical dependency counselor in a dual diagnosis program for adolescents. Currently, she is working as the grant program consultant for the youth ministry and mental health initiative with the Northeastern Minnesota Synod ELCA, is an Adult Mental Health First Aid Instructor, and a full-time parent. She enjoys opportunities to speak, teach and be a resource to congregations.

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