“Good Grief!” This expression made famous by Schultz’ Charlie Brown is not going away. Neither is grief. Grief is a reaction to loss, often in the death of a loved one.
There are stages to grief, but not all who are grieving experience the stages. Grief is unfortunately not as simple as its definition. Yet in the aftermath of COVID-19, grief has become more complex. With more than 2 million reported deaths caused by complications due to COVID-19, the world today is a grieving world.
With the necessary guidelines of social distancing, many are left to grieve without the traditional rituals surrounding death. Hospital visits, funeral services and church services all were truncated or postponed entirely, often leaving the griever alone with their grief. How can the church begin to help people during this time?
First, we can learn about grief processes. The “Five Stages of Grief” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is a well-known approach. A lesser-known model is J.W. Worden’s “Four Tasks of Mourning,” which includes the tasks of acceptance, working through pain, adjustment, and keeping memories/connections with the deceased.
A grieving person accepts that loss has occurred and that loss comes with mourning. After this acceptance, a person begins to work through the pain of loss. A person can begin to understand their need to release how they feel to others and seek help from others.
This pain comes with the adjustment of life after loss. Whether it is little things such as buying less groceries or one less movie ticket, the grieving person now has to change decisions. The grieving person does not, however, need to burn away their memories and connections. They can continue to hold dearly to that person and the memories of them while living out a new life.
Second, we can realize our role and our limitations. Although this approach offers many helpful tips and practices in handling the process of grief, we are not mental health professionals. We are the helpers for those around us in grief.
In our helping roles, we should follow the basic rule that we are to do no harm. Whatever we say or don’t say, whatever we do or don’t do, should follow this rule. We also can support a person in their grief by encouraging them to get help from a trained mental health professional.
“God is described many times throughout the Bible as a ‘helper.’ It is a description of power, not weakness.”
Third, we can lean on the examples in the Bible for how to help people in grief. God is described many times throughout the Bible as a “helper.” It is a description of power, not weakness. God lets people grieve and is with them through the process, as we see in the book of Lamentations.
God gives people love, while allowing them to grieve. We can imitate God in our helping of others.
We also can remember the hope of the resurrection. Jesus gave his life to the world in order that the world would be healed. Yet this happens gradually, so we must realize that we live in a broken world and that the world will experience pain and suffering.
We can take to heart the words of Jesus when he healed the blind man in John 9. The people described in this passage had decided a blind man was blind because of sin. Jesus refutes this claim. We also can refute the claims of those who try to play God and teach that a person’s suffering resulted from sin. This lacks the love that Christ calls us to and misunderstands how to help someone in a time of pain and loss.
“We also can refute the claims of those who try to play God and teach that a person’s suffering resulted from sin.”
Let us not forget the shortest verse in the Bible that states, after Jesus lost his friend, “Jesus wept.” We can weep along with those who grieve in this life and we can live out the hope of the gospel by caring for them. However, we should not see those in grief as projects to fix, but people to show love to and neighbors to care for.
Finally, we can find a few practical ways to show care and concern for someone in grief.
- Do not devalue someone’s loss, whether it be the loss of a family member, a pet or any other form of loss. Their pain is legitimate; allow them space to voice this.
- Give people space and time to speak when and if they are ready. Our role is to be ready and willing to be there for them, not force a conversation.
- Do not assume that a person has gotten over a loss. 15% of people go through a process of “complicated grief” in which their grief is prolonged and might never truly end.
- Try to learn about the cultural framework of someone who is grieving. Cultures around the world have unique expressions of grief, and to belittle a cultural expression will create a divide between you and the grieving person.
- Do not presume a person will follow all the steps seen in many theories on grief. These lists are helpful, but they are not descriptive for all.
- Allow for the emotions of grief when they are expressed. These emotions do not just relate to sadness but could include regret, anger, humor, avoidance, denial and much more. How someone grieves will be unique to them; do not shame them for it. Remember Tolkien’s words, “I will not say, ‘Do not weep,’ for not all tears are an evil.”
Jacob George is a master of divinity student at Truett Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He completed an undergraduate degree in biblical studies at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo.