Grief is a way of loving: Pastoral theology for a pandemic


“We are not alone. We live in God’s world.” These words open the United Church of Canada’s affirmation of faith, known simply as “A New Creed.” It is widely known around the world as a contemporary, ecumenical faith statement, but in the present moment, a year into the COVID-19 global pandemic, its claims may well ring hollow for people who directly bear the virus’ harms. How is it possible in such a time as this to proclaim that we are not alone?

The virus has claimed more almost a half million lives in the U.S. at the time of this writing and has forced people everywhere into isolation. What does it mean to say that we live in God’s world, when fears and uncertainties have transformed the world into a hostile dwelling place for so many people?

Life in a pandemic reconfigures how we deal with the problem of loss theologically — whether the loss of relationships that lead to being existentially alone, or the loss of a sense of well-being in the world that is God’s. Loss draws the eyes of pastoral theologians to grief, an experience that is not only highlighted but also reshaped by the COVID-19 virus.

Grieving in a pandemic

Grieving is the bodily, cognitive, emotional and spiritual means through which we deal with the loss of a meaningful something or a meaningful someone. It is the soul’s cry of protest over broken bonds and ruptured connections. It is the body’s summons of resistance to the dread of being existentially alone. For creatures whose very beings require relationship, connection and community, grief is part of the struggle to relearn how to be fully human in the face of loss. And the coronavirus unfortunately has afforded us a great deal of practice with grieving.

Faith communities possess centuries of wisdom for helping people deal with death, dying and grief. Yet the sheer magnitude of illness and death in the past year defies imagination and easily overwhelms even those accustomed to it. In many cases coronavirus-related deaths happen quickly, but their most troubling component may be that so many people are dying alone, or nearly so, with only a healthcare provider in attendance. They are isolated from the comforting presence of family members and their churches.

In other words, under the conditions of the pandemic, the church knows how to witness to a person’s suffering and to God’s loving presence, but is prevented from doing so in its usual ways. This not only affects the dying person, but it also leaves family members and healthcare providers in great distress. “It happened so fast and I didn’t get to say goodbye to him except through a phone,” a neighbor told me, speaking about her spouse in the hospital.

In the aftermath of death, the necessity of avoiding large groups changes the way we mourn. There is something profoundly lonely about these losses. The grieving cry out for the balm of connection and ritual observance, but the disruption of normal mourning practices contributes to the lack of closure experienced by family and community members who cannot access their church’s liturgical and ritual supports for grieving. In all of these ways, then, COVID-19 reshapes the experience of grief in response to death.

The intangibility of COVID-19 losses

Not all losses are the result of death. In the COVID-19 pandemic, less tangible losses are an everyday normal reality. I first became aware of this in the early months of the pandemic: schools and offices shut down, hand sanitizer grew scarce, hospitals in some cities filled and advice for coping emerged from every quarter.

Airwaves, newspapers and blogs were replete with experts telling us how to manage by filling our lives: Try to keep to your normal schedule even though you are not going out to your workplace. Get up, get dressed, make the bed. Take socially distanced walks to see friends. Make your home cozy. Bake bread, simmer cinnamon and oranges on the stove for a refreshing scent. Exercise. Create predictable daily rhythms for your children. Keep life as normal as possible.

For me, this constant barrage of ideas became a never-ending to-do list that did not help all that much. A few months later, it came as a relief when some gurus finally began to say something different: You know that difficulty you have with staying focused? That sense of being just a bit off-kilter, that low-level sadness in spite of doing all the self-care in the world? That is what grief feels like.

Of course. Grief, with its confusing mixture of feelings, defines what I have been hearing in stories from my students, friends, colleagues and family. In grief, thinking becomes muddled. Ill-defined feelings shift rapidly and are sometimes hard to recognize because they may not attach directly to a particular “grievable” experience.

While it is fairly straightforward to recognize the responses of loved ones after a death as grief, many coronavirus-related losses are less tangible. Yet they are real losses nevertheless, and as such, they evoke grief: loss of the ability to gather, loss of physical presence with beloved family members and friends, loss of control over events affecting one’s children, loss of a sense of security and overall well-being. Such losses can be hard to pin down in their vague, incorporeal character. Grief in the time of COVID-19 is complicated by the many locations it can occupy within our lives, many of which involve losses for which there is no body to bury. And there often is no definitive sense of closure as the loss stretches on and on through time.

Ambiguous loss and complicated pandemic grief

In a 2010, Pauline Boss, professor emerita in the department of family social science at the University of Minnesota, coined the term “ambiguous loss” to describe situations in which a loss remains unclear in some sense. Boss originally developed this concept in relation to losses within a family — perhaps someone is physically present but psychologically absent or, in contrast, perhaps a family member takes up an enormous amount of psychological space despite their concrete, physical absence. Multiple examples come to mind: a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia; a family that includes a deployed soldier; a missing child; or an abandoning parent. Are they there? Not there? It is unclear, at least psychologically and relationally. This situation creates a lack of closure, as the aspect of presence seems to negate the legitimacy of grief for what is absent.

This lack of closure is uncomfortable because human beings are wired to seek emotional resolution. The
ambiguity of a situation in which someone seems both present and absent may become intolerable. Furthermore, the lack of clarity complicates efforts to make meaning out of what
has happened. A parent with dementia is still present physically, but spouses and children feel the death of their relationship. How can grieving occur when the physical person is still present?

The death of a family member from COVID-19 may seem particularly unreal when loved ones cannot be present with them. Boss says that with ambiguous losses, the process of grieving becomes frozen. Ambiguous loss has particular traction in the current pandemic because deaths related to COVID-19 contain many features of ambiguity. From the inability to bring closure to a death by holding a public funeral service, to the lack of clear boundaries around less tangible losses such as one’s feeling of safety, security and sense of purpose, COVID-19 losses are ambiguous, making them difficult to grieve well.

Reorienting ourselves to grief as love

What do we do, then, about grief reshaped by COVID-19? Not so long ago, thanatologists (those who study death) and pastoral theologians alike commonly spoke about grief as something to be “resolved.” It was thought that this resolution needed to take place within a bounded time period, beyond which it was no longer deemed “healthy grief.” Drawing from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ depiction of death and dying as a process with distinct stages, a popular misconception of grief emerged that identified it as a kind of work involving a series of sequential tasks. At the end of the process, the resolution of grief supposedly occurred when the person suffering a loss of a loved one could “withdraw” energy from the one who died, redirecting it to relationships among the living.

These were fine ideas — they just didn’t turn out to be true for the lives of actual grieving people, who reported that they continued to experience a connection with the loved one whose loss they mourn. Those undergoing the death of a loved one, for instance, often continue to grieve their loss while also “getting on with their lives.” Contemporary studies with bereaved people make clear that grief is neither linear nor stage-like. And it certainly does not “resolve,” if that means letting go of love for the deceased or ignoring a continuing sense of their presence amid the concrete reality of physical absence that comes with death. As pastoral theologian Bruce Rogers-Vaughn, professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, noted that we find among the grieving plenty of evidence that love persists beyond death. “Grief is essentially love under the condition of absence,” he wrote.

Rogers-Vaughn’s description of grief sounds a great deal like ambiguous loss at first glance: a bereaved person maintains an attachment even in the face of absence, a situation ripe with the lack of clarity and closure that Boss says freezes a person’s ability to grieve.

When viewed through the lens of the Christian affirmation that love is stronger than death, the assertion that “grief is essentially love under the condition of absence” puts forward a faith claim: love defies the ability of separation to negate it. The loss is real, as is the suffering it engenders. But the bonds of love are not severed by loss. They remain. An ongoing sense of connection to the deceased person or to a lost experience does not mean that a grieving person is unable to invest in life. Rather, it recognizes that life is forever changed by loss, and yet life persists. In situations of death, then, there can be closure without the end of all connection. There is both certainty of the end of physical life and that love continues. And in situations of less tangible forms of loss, grief is a working out of losses over hopes, and over those things that make life meaningful — a parent’s dream for her child’s healthy development, or opportunities to gather, for instance. Such longings surely express love amid the ache. It seems not such a stretch, then, for Christians to reorient ourselves from the idea that grief is a thing to resolve and put away, to recognizing grief as a way of loving. We affirm, after all, that all love is of God and that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

“We are not alone; we live in God’s world.” Those who penned the United Church of Canada’s affirmation of faith could not have predicted the pandemic we face today. But they begin and end the creed with words that speak into the isolation and aloneness of this time: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us; we are not alone. Thanks be to God.” Perhaps it only becomes possible to inhabit grief as a way of loving – to live in the tension and ambiguity of love under the condition of absence and loss – when we can also affirm that we are not alone because God is with us.

Joyce Ann Mercer is the Horace Bushnell Professor of Divinity and professor of practical theology and pastoral care at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut, where she currently lives. She is a minister member of National Capital Presbytery.