By David C. Wang
In varying degrees, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on all of our physical, financial, relational, and emotional health. I would add that it also presents unique challenges to our spiritual life.
Congregational gatherings have abruptly transitioned online, and even as churches slowly reopen their physical doors, many church leaders (as well as church members) sense a profound shift in the world as they know it and are wondering if things will ever be the same.
Unfortunately, it won’t—even when we eventually reach the day when we’re free to meet in person again (a day I’m very much looking forward to).
But from the standpoint of our Christian faith, not only is this OK, but we’re actually in familiar territory.
Because our world will never again be the same, we are all—to different extents—in grief.
What many of us are experiencing today, the hidden emotional weight we’ve been carrying all this time (whether directly impacted by COVID-19 or not), is grief.
As a trauma psychologist, I remember someone explaining to me that all trauma therapy is grief therapy. This is because trauma always involves some form of loss—whether this loss is concrete, symbolic, or a combination of the two.
For those of us who have lost a loved one, for those of us who have lost employment or a means of livelihood during this pandemic, it might be more straightforward to recognize this reality.
But for the rest of us, it’s helpful to consider how loss can take many shapes and forms, especially during the current season we’re in.
To start, we’ve lost our ability to physically congregate.
God created us to be relational beings, and though technology enables us to remain in contact through computerized images, something important is lost when we’re unable to physically connect with each other.
Physical presence is a value and practice that shouldn’t be understated from the standpoint of our faith; God Himself models this through the doctrine of the Incarnation (Philippians 2:5-8).
We’ve also lost our previous life rhythms.
Children can no longer attend school, and despite the benefits of sleeping in and not having to attend class, they, too, are grieving the structure and schedule that used to provide contexts to be with their friends and to participate in meaningful and worthwhile activities.
We’ve lost our sense of safety in the world. We’ve lost hopes and dreams we once had for the upcoming year(s) of life. We’ve lost many of the activities we used to enjoy.
We’ve lost our sense of normalcy. We’ve lost our sense of control over our lives.
We’ve lost the feeling of being out in the world without needing to be constantly vigilant about catching a disease we cannot see.
And because we’re grappling with loss, we’re all in grief.
Some of us express our grief through anger, by seeking to find a culprit or scapegoat to direct attention towards rather than facing the painful realities of what was lost.
Some of us express our grief by denying there’s even anything wrong in the first place.
Some express grief by feeling sad, hopeless, and alone—even abandoned.
And others express grief by feeling guilty—thinking that if we had just tried harder or planned with greater foresight, things might have ended differently.
All of these grief reactions can manifest themselves spiritually as well (e.g., anger or disappointment toward God, feeling abandoned by God, etc.).
Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief, which are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Following the sentiment of David Kessler, I suggest there’s a sixth stage as well—finding meaning.
And while the Christian faith speaks profoundly to all stages of grief, I’d like to focus the rest of this article on this last stage—on how our faith might be brought to bear to help us find meaning in this season of COVID-19.
To this end—and now I ‘m speaking not just as a trauma psychologist, but also as a pastor of a local congregation—I offer three points of consideration:
1. As Christians, we need—now more than ever—a nuanced redemption narrative.
I affirm without reservation that through Christ’s death and resurrection, sin and death have been definitively conquered (Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57).
I also affirm Christ will one day return to consummate His Kingdom (Revelation 19:7-8) and redeem all of creation (Romans 8:19-25), where He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, where death shall be no more, and where there will be no mourning, nor crying, nor pain (Revelation 21:4).
But that day has not yet arrived. And until that day comes, all creation groans as in the pains of childbirth (Romans 8:22). Until that day comes, there will remain an important place in the Christian life—especially the mature Christian’s life—for things like tears, pain, and grief.
The Christian language of grief is lament, and most of the Psalms speak this language. The fact that so few of our modern-day hymnals and songs of worship speak this language, I believe, has left us in deficit.
We need to learn how to celebrate Christ’s triumph over sin while at the same time affirming that this work hasn’t yet been fully consummated. And because of this, Christ proclaims in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4).
Pastors—now and even when we’re free to meet together again—give permission, make space for yourself and for your congregation to mourn, so the comfort of God can be received (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) and so we may yearn with even greater anticipation our true hope, which is grounded in Christ’s return.
2. As Christians, we cannot bypass all the other stages of grief and skip straight to meaning-making.
When I bear witness to the pain of loss in my own life or in the lives of others, I often wish there was a way we could skip all the stages of grief (i.e., denial, anger, bargaining, depression, etc.) and jump straight to acceptance or finding meaning.
I’d love to find a way to jump straight to the heartfelt conclusion that what man intended for evil, God meant for good (Genesis 50:20).
I wish there was a way to quickly and definitively reach the determination of King David that “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:11-12).
But in the lived experience of grief (not the ideal theoretical or philosophical forms of grief), there’s no other way to meaning and acceptance apart from some non-linear (and often messy and circular) combination of the earlier stages.
I think of the journey of Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. There was no shortcut to the Celestial City.
The only way for Christians to reach that final destination was through the Slough of Despond, past the Iron Cage of Despair, into the Valley of the Shadow of Death (Psalm 23:4).
3. As Christians, let’s reach out and accompany each other in our journey of grief.
Psychological research on trauma has found that one of the most consistent and powerful predictors of resilience and recovery in the face of emotionally distressful situations is social support—being reminded that others care, and we’re not alone.
There are many types of social support—it can be emotional (aimed at meeting emotional needs), instrumental (aimed at meeting practical needs), formal (with professionals such as psychologists or counselors), and informal (with family and friends).
Every type is helpful, and at any given point, we may find ourselves needing one form more than another.
Above all, let’s not forget to seek out and receive Christ’s accompaniment in our journey of grief. Let’s not forget the foundation of our Christian faith is built upon a trauma—the trauma of the cross of Christ.
And so, we can approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, for we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted (and has suffered) in every way, just as we are (Hebrews 4:15-16).
DAVID C. WANG, Th.M., Ph.D., (drdavidcwang.com) is associate professor of psychology and pastoral counseling at Biola University, pastor of One Life City Church in Fullerton, California, and licensed clinical psychologist.