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The gift within the grim reality of grief

The Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson

June 10, 2020

One of the challenging areas in pastoral ministry is to deal with grief. It is challenging, if we are honest, to deal with our own grief. Then, add the complexity of walking with others through this strange and muddy landscape of emotion to the mix, and challenging becomes a woefully inadequate description. I am not exactly sure how I stumbled upon this helpful resource about twenty years ago, but I have used it and shared it with others along the way. The title of the book is “Good Grief” by Granger E. Westberg. Westberg walks individuals through the sober reality of grief. Grief is the emotional struggle that happens due to a loss. It can be as simple as changing from one school to another, or as devastating as the death of a spouse, parent, or child.

The past few months we have become more acquainted with grief than we have realized. In his book, Westberg amply indicates that grief is woven into the tapestry of our everyday lives. We grieve events small and large. While death is one of the most emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually disturbing life events to grieve, loss of any kind causes grief. Since the advent of COVID-19, there have been significant losses, from the loss of jobs, to losing loved ones. The losses during this COVID pandemic have been epic. The Washington Post noted in April 2020 that more than 22 million Americans had filed for unemployment, and these numbers have only continued to grow. This includes, but is not limited to, proprietors and entrepreneurs whose livelihoods have been drastically altered. Job loss impacts an individual’s sense of security, well-being, and emotional stability. In these instances, there was no loss of life, yet individuals grieve. This is considered a non-death loss—one that we are becoming all too familiar with. These losses place a profound burden on an individual. They can be life-altering, mentality and emotionally.

While U.S. unemployment numbers during the coronavirus pandemic are the worst since the Great Depression, deaths exceed those in the Vietnam War. The grim reality is that grief is something that everyone experiences. The facts concerning COVID-19 reveal that we are truly living in unprecedented times. Embedded in these facts is the pain of loss. COVID-19 has disrupted life, yet grief is constant. There are patients who are isolated in the hospital from loved ones. The patient grieves the separation from family, and family and friends grieve being unable to support their loved ones with their physical presence. Then, as death happens, family members struggle with saying good-bye to loved ones. Funeral providers have made virtual funerals a standard practice during this crisis. Even this falls short for many, as it conflicts with many rituals and traditions of saying goodbye. Author, coach, and therapist Jo Tocher noted in a LinkedIn post that “we understand why this is, but we can’t grasp it on an emotional level.”

There is power and a gift in grieving. When we are allowed to grieve, and when those relationships we are connected to are recognized, the process of healing is made available.

Grief is a familiar construct in life. However, an individual’s resilience is related to how grief is experienced. While grief is familiar, often the recognition of relationships related to grief is overlooked by society, family and culture in general. Caring for patients that die, nurses and caregivers that are not related experience disenfranchised grief. Professor, author, and counselor Kenneth J. Doka defines disenfranchised grief “as grief that is not acknowledged by society, by the healthcare culture, or by individuals.”[i] It is mostly likely that not only healthcare professionals but others will experience disenfranchised grief during COVID-19. When relationships, no matter how distant, are not recognized the individual may not have the opportunity to grieve. In a 2011 study of disenfranchised grief in hospital chaplains, board-certified chaplain Steven Spidell notes, “Without recognition of grief reactions or the potential presence of disenfranchised grief, losses may be transformed into other emotions such as anger, anxiety, blame, helplessness, and guilt. Reactions can also take the form of a chronic or delayed grief that can lead to compassion fatigue or burnout…”[ii]

The buoyance of resilience through these varied aspects of grief can be found in recognizing grief and the loss that has happened. There is potency in naming loss. Naming that which has been lost does not give it power, it allows an individual to accept the grieving process. There is power and a gift in grieving. When we are allowed to grieve, and when those relationships we are connected to are recognized, the process of healing is made available. Professional counselors and therapists will agree that there are stages of grief. This is not a linear process; it is, however, a process. It is in this that we honor those relationships, we learn about ourselves, and ultimately find the strength to grow. It is not about simply moving on. To simply move on is to neglect what has been lost and abort the grieving process.

The disruption that has happened due to COVID-19 is devastating. It has changed and challenged lives. In this disruption, when the loss that has happened is named, it has the potential of revealing the resilience that resides within. While grief is painful, it is also restorative. It is important to take time to recognize things that have changed due to a loss. The human spirit is naturally resilient. Grief allows the soul to breathe anew. In moments of suffering, agony, and the pain of loss, practicing self-care and kindness is essential. Support networks that are affirming can be helpful during these times. Grief is not an attempt to fix what is broken. It allows the soul to breathe, inhaling a new reality while exhaling the pain of loss. This rhythm is the restorative aspect of grief as we walk through the stages that include shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The gift is found in the journey.

The Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson is pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Endicott, N.Y.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Spidell, Steven., Annemarie Wallace, Cindy L. Carmack, Graciela M. Nogueras-Gonzalez, Crystal L. Parker and Scott B. Cantor. 2011. Grief in Healthcare Chaplains: An Investigation of the Presence of Disenfranchised Grief. Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy, Apr. v.17, p. 76. (accessed May 10, 2020)

[ii] Ibid, p. 77.

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