Published on May 4, 2020 by Drew Phillips  
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Imagine you turn onto a road you’ve never been on. You knew you would end up on this particular road; you’ve avoided this road, but here you are. Others have been on this road before and have told you some landmarks to look for to help you keep your bearings. But you were forced to get on the road further along than the others you’ve talked to and nothing seems familiar. Friends and families, who have lost loved ones during the pandemic, are experiencing this same kind of unfamiliar feeling. They have encountered grief in a way that is very unlike our usual experience of grief. 

To be clear, grief over the loss of a loved one is a very individual and unique experience for everyone. No one grieves in exactly the same way. But we do have some established rituals around the end of life; some so ingrained that we do not recognize them as rituals until we lose them. When someone we love is at the end of life there are steps we take in their care that also serve as a means to process our grief. When a loved one receives a terminal diagnosis, the process of grief begins. As the disease progresses so does our grief. The time that is spent in doctor’s visits and trips to the hospital, the time spent at home resting, the time spent in meetings with physicians and nurses and the rest of the care team to establish goals of care all contribute in some way to our sense of grief and ability to process our thoughts and feelings along the way.

Sometimes this process is cut short by the immediate and traumatic loss of a loved one. But even in cases of sudden death, there are still the funeral and memorial services to help those grieving move towards a place of acceptance and healing.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, families and loved ones have been stripped almost completely of these rituals. Even families of patients who are not infected with COVID-19 have lost these valuable rituals to help orient them in their time of grief. They have to receive updates by phone without physically seeing their loved one, and if they are allowed to visit at all, it is not until the patient is at the end of life. The patient may only have days to hours to live. If the patient has had a long hospitalization, coming in at the very end of life means the family has lost a lot of valuable time with them. Many times, families cannot appreciate or grasp how sick a person is without the bedside interactions, and so are very shocked to come in and find their loved one close to death. Of course, in the case of patients who are infected with COVID-19, their families are limited to virtual visits by phone or video calls, period. These modes of communication are poor substitutes for holding the hand of someone dear as they take their final breaths.

All of these circumstances are turning experiences that people can generally cope with through ordinary means into extraordinary situations with long lasting emotional and spiritual trauma.

While the ministry of local churches and parishes have been crucial during the time of the pandemic, there may be even more to do when we are past this initial crisis and people continue to work through the losses.

So how do we help brothers and sisters through these complex emotional and spiritual issues? What can be done to help others process their grief and find some sense of normalcy again?

Here are some ideas and suggestions:

  • Familiarize ourselves with the grief resources in your area. Know where to refer people for specialized grief counseling when it is needed.
  • Allow people to talk about their experience. When people are allowed to share their experience, they feel less alone. Talking about grief is one way that helps people cope with it in the best of circumstances. Being able to express grief to others now is even more important and helps them process their feelings instead of feeling stuck in their feelings.
  • Just listen. It is easy for us to want to fix problems and help people we care about feel better, but many times just being present and listening is what grieving people need. All they need from us is to listen to how they feel without comment or advice.

I hope these simple suggestions will be helpful. The spiritual needs will long out last the actual crisis. We don’t yet know what the full impact will be, but we can be sure that people will need the compassionate care of ministers and pastors.

Drew Phillips (M.Div. ‘12) is a chaplain at Ascension St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham.