Grief, Mourning, Ministry, and COVID-19

Grief, Mourning, Ministry, and COVID-19

Anyone who has lived and worked cross-culturally knows that there are significant losses baked into ministry:

 

  • Multiple leavings and new beginnings
  • Steady diet of change
  • Living with ambiguity and unfamiliarity at regular intervals
  • Regular doses of disillusionment (on many levels) that need to be integrated
  • Relational churn because people regularly come and go
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Less insulation from suffering in many parts of the world (though we are, because of COVID-19, in a season of the stripping away of many useful illusions like safety, continuity, predictability)

 

So how do we handle loss and the feelings of grief that are evoked as a result? The short answer is by learning to mourn well. It is common for people to use the words loss, grief, and mourning sometimes synonymously. But it is helpful to separate them and define them.

 

A Loss is an ending, separation, or change in relation to someone or something to which we have a significant bond or attachment. Grief is the bodily, cognitive, and emotional reactions to losses, separations, or changes. Mourning is the process by which we recover from losses and our feelings of grief.

 

Losses are often easy to identify: they are unambiguous. Some losses, however, are hidden in plain sight: they are ambiguous. Psychologist and researcher Pauline Boss (Boss, 1999) identified 2 types of ambiguous loss:

 

  • Type One: Occurs when there is a physical absence with psychological presence. Common examples of this are divorce, adoption, and loss of physical contact with family and friends due to things like immigration…or sheltering at home during a pandemic.
  • Type Two: Occurs when there is a psychological absence with a physical presence. Common examples include situations were a loved one is physically here, but psychologically not present or dramatically changed, like what happens when someone has Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, traumatic brain injury, or severe mental illness.

 

It seems to me that most of us are experiencing a type of ambiguous loss right now. Some of us have experienced obvious, unambiguous losses: of job, of health, of relationship, of life. But I suspect that, for many, there is a sense of sadness and anxiety just at the edge of our awareness that has to do with the loss of life structure as a result of the pandemic: a psychological absence with physical presence.

 

A little more than 40 years ago, psychologist Daniel Levinson (Levinson, 1978, 1996) was studying the normal life-cycle development of adults. His research led him to propose the idea of “life structure.” The life structure is the underlying pattern or design of a person’s life at any given time; more specifically, it is the individual’s pattern of involvement in relationships, roles, activities and physical settings. The life structure enables one to live out and elaborate basic choices and values, conscious or not, as well as adapt to one’s surroundings. For many of us, the patterning of our lives has been significantly, if not profoundly, disrupted.

 

In what ways have you experienced losses “hidden in plain sight”? Are you aware of a sense of disruption of your life structure? Have you felt unexpected feelings of sadness? Loss of focus and energy? Feelings of dread and anxiety? If so, you are in good company.

 

So how do we navigate our unambiguous and ambiguous losses?

 

I’d like to suggest that how we handle loss and our feelings of grief is one strong predictor of our resilience over time in ministry, in general, and in missions, in particular.  

 

Resilient people recognize that grief is the price of love (Parkes, 2015).

 

Rather than settling for relief, resilient people learn to embrace their feelings of grief and mourn well.

 

Resilient people become skilled at the process of mourning. This is important because learning to mourn well: 1) helps us to bond deeply and also to let go of those people and things to which we are attached, and 2) helps us to “travel light” in relation to past losses. Un-mourned losses and the stored feelings of grief that accompany them get reawakened by current losses, making it more difficult to cope.

 

So, how do we mourn well? Consider these strategies:

 

  • Thinking about what we don’t want to think about. It is important to create times and spaces to name and claim our losses and grief reactions.

 

  • Who are my people? Who are safe people with whom I can talk about unambiguous and ambiguous losses? With whom do I feel most secure, with whom I can be vulnerable? We are designed to mourn

 

  • Telling stories, looking at pictures, listening to songs, touching items. Mourning allows our hearts to detach itself from that which is no longer here and to attach itself to the memories of that which was lost.

 

  • Grief and joy often live side by side. It may seem counterintuitive, but grief and joy may exist at the same time. Embrace this paradox.

 

  • Move! Motion and emotion are related. We were made to feel and move…each mobilizes the other and helps us make progress.

 

  • The ancient practice of Lament: Recently, New Testament scholar and theologian N.T. Wright wrote a powerful article entitled, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” (Wright, 2020) In it, he encourages Christians to return to the ancient practice of lament. Fully 1/3 of the Psalms in scripture are laments. They have a discernable structure waiting to be rediscovered by the church at this time and in our subcultures. Consider writing your own personal lament.

 

  • Be present: There has been great comfort for me watching the creation move forward from winter to spring…my life structure has been disrupted, but the unforced rhythms of nature have not. And they remind me that, while we are disrupted and suffering now, we groan with the Spirit in creation’s labor for that which is coming…New Creation!

 

 

 

References

Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous loss: Learning to live with unresolved grief.

Levinson, D. J. (1978). The seasons of a man’s life.

Levinson, D. J. (1996). The seasons of a woman’s life.

Parkes, C.M. (2015). The Price of Love. 

N.T. Wright (29 March 2020). “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus.” Time magazine.

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