SUSPENDED IN GRIEF
by Dennis W. Foust, Senior Minister of St. John’s Baptist Church of Charlotte
This COVID-19 global pandemic is presenting us with suspended grief. As we approach this All Saints’ Day, many people are suspended in grief. This article is offered to those of you who may be grieving and to equip those of you who may be serving person in grief as part of your Ministry in Daily Life
The familiar description called “stages of grief” is only one way to consider the grieving process. Often, grief is more like a spiral circling around and around through familiar and unfamiliar territory again and again with each spiral tracing close to an existing prior circle while drawing a different circle each time around. A person rarely transitions from shock or denial to anger to bargaining to depression to acceptance in clearly defined steps. Almost always, a person repeats these experiences in a spiraling pattern.
Often, a person who has lost a loved one, marriage, job, freedom, capacity, vision, lifestyle, role, relationship, home, career, pet, physical ability, financial capacity, etc. finds it difficult to step through sequential stages at all. Persons in grief may say, “How long does this last? Can you help me endure this?” “It seems as if the future is not ready for me and the past doesn’t want me b
When a person is ‘Suspended in Grief,’ life can be similar to a trapeze artist swinging on a bar between platforms. Transitioning from one platform to the other requires a trapeze artist to wait until the timing matches and until they have their balance enough to make a solid landing. Grief can suspend persons between what has been their life that cannot be restored and what is not yet a reality. Of course, each of us has experienced loss and may have also been suspended in grief. This pandemic is extending our waiting times and resetting the rhythm of our transitioning.
If you are grieving during this COVID-19 pandemic:
- Accept the reality that your grieving is necessary. You should not feel guilty for grieving.
- Trust God with your negative emotions. A healthy relationship with God is based upon honesty. Therefore, you cannot always be able to express positive feelings. Negative emotions, questions and doubts must also be expressed to God in our prayers, our shouts of discouragement and despair and our pain. God is plenty big enough and faithfully loving enough to hear your negative thoughts and doubts.
- Allow space to your family members to grieve in a different way from yourself. If you are not able to sleep through the night or focus on your daily responsibilities or work after 3 months, please visit your medical professional, psychiatrist, psychologist or licensed professional counselor.
- Use the trapeze metaphor above: identify what solid foundations are no longer under you and what will be first signs that a new foundation is appearing before you.
- Tell stories of how you enjoyed your life before your loss. Identify what you lost and what you miss about your life prior to your loss. Try to view what you lost and what you miss through a lens of gratitude. In other words, work toward being thankful for what you enjoyed.
- Some people feel as if they are devaluing or abandoning their loved one if they move forward with their lives. Allow yourself to consider how you would want your loved one to move forward if you had been the one who passed on?
- Welcome care from your family, your friends and caregivers such as deacons and pastoral ministers.
- Make a list of scripture verses or quotations that encourage you.
- Pray for other family members who are grieving. Let them know you are praying for them. Expect that your relationship with God will shift a bit as you are attentive to praying through your grieving process. (Allow yourself the freedom to let people know when they offer sick theology to you.)
- Be attentive to ways your grief may express as outbursts of rage, despairing comments, relational distancing, ongoing discouragement, conversations overshadowed by bitterness, fixations upon fantasy, selective memory, behaviors that hurt yourself or others or a redefinition of identity. Please reach out to your counselors if these patterns develop.
If you are caring for or offering supportive ministry to persons who are suspended in grief?
- Affirm their grief, though it is filled with negative emotions, as real and appropriate.
- Relate with them from the position that a healthy relationship with God is based upon honesty – and this means we are not always able to express positive feelings. Negative emotions, questions and doubts must also be expressed to God in our prayers, our shouts of discouragement and despair and our pain. Remind them God is plenty big enough and faithfully loving enough to hear their negative thoughts and doubts.
- Be attentive to the grieving person on a regular basis (sometimes this is best done through contacting family members or close friends). It is so important to encourage the person to seek professional counseling if you learn of significant behavioral changes that reflect a lack of health.
- Some people grieve for long periods of time prior to the death of a loved one. Some caregivers are suspended in grief prior to the death of a loved one because they can begin to feel their loss before it is final. This is especially true for caregivers of persons living with dementia, Alzheimer’s, some types of cancer and diseases which gradually weaken and cause the death of their loved one.
- It may be helpful to offer the trapeze metaphor and offer to be part of their safety net, check on them regularly and even to swing on the suspended trapeze bar with them now and then. (See story below.)
- Keep in mind that some people have difficulty living forward because it feels as if they are devaluing or abandoning their loved one. Ask questions such as, “What memories of __name help you find strength today?” “If you had been the one who passed on, how would you have hoped for __name__ to live their life while also remembering and honoring their love for you.” Even if the person has no answer and becomes frustrated by the question, it often helps them reflect on important ideas in the days and weeks ahead.
- You may ask them how other family members are doing. This helps them consider how others are living forward and places their sensibilities on other persons about whom they care.
- Just as each loss is different, each person grieves in their own particular way. One specific scripture verse that is good to keep in mind is Hebrews 11:1 – “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We are encouraged by faith to live forward with assurance of our hopes and in keeping focused on our convictions that God still has new things to reveal to us.
- You may find it helpful to mark your calendar for anniversaries of the loss. If it was a death, you could also mark your calendar for both the survivor’s birthday and the date of the deceased person’s birthday.
- Pray for the person daily. Tell the person you are praying for them and ask them once every four to six weeks what specifics you can pray for on their behalf or on behalf of their family. (Expect your relationship with God to shift a bit as you offer compassionate care for other persons. You will begin to find pathways of reflection about God’s character that can only be experienced by serving others.)
- Determine who else is in the circle of compassionate concern and ministry for this person and have conversations with them so you are serving them as a team; others will also appreciate learning from you.
- Remember that some situations present as ‘repeating grief.’ This occurs in families where divorce has happened and children are involved. Each family decision may present ‘repeating grief’ for the adults and children – even if the children are adults. Another example of repeating grief surfaces when a family is living with lost visions because of chronic health conditions, addictions, health limitations, physical handicaps, or financial setbacks which limit capacities to live in ways that were once envisioned.
- Listen and watch for outbursts of rage, despairing comments, relational distancing, ongoing discouragement, conversations overshadowed by bitterness, fixation upon fantasy, selective memory or redefinition of identity. If you sense evidence of these factors, encourage the person to seek professional counseling.
- Offer to pray with the person occasionally. You may also ask them to voice a prayer
- Help the grieving person express gratitude for the experiences of the lost loved one. Ask them for what they enjoyed. You may also have stories to tell sharing enjoyable memories of the person.
- You may be able to use the following story: When you entered this experience of grief, it is as if you had to step off of the platform on which you were firmly standing. As you stood there, you could see open space between where you were and the different experience on the other side of your loss. What you could not fully realize is that God’s faithfulness is like a swinging trapeze bar that offers you firm support as you swing between your past and your future. The wonderful fact about this swinging trapeze bar is that, although you may feel at risk in the midst of your grieving, the trapeze bar is actually holding you even more securely than you are grasping the bar. Some of us will offer you a security net. We will be present with you as you gradually swing your way to the platform of your future. Although it will be different, the same God who gave you blessings in your past will bring blessings to you in the future. We are in this time with you.