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Crisis Care: Dealing with Loss and Grief

Posted: 4/8/20 at 12:00pm. Written by Kristen Curtis, adapted from Crisis Care Team:  A Training Manual for Spiritual Care Providers; Dan Franklin, ed.  Copyright 2017 Texas Crisis Resiliency Team; Virginia Baptist Disaster Response Edition.

It strikes me as such an odd thing that our current circumstances include “social distancing” as an expression of care and concern for the most vulnerable among us. It is so counter to the ways we ordinarily care for the hurting and the lonely. In an attempt to care for people in the most effective ways possible during this time, we are attempting to share some wisdom from our Crisis Care Team training and adapt it to this new need to care for people while practicing social distancing.

Grief is a response to loss. Loss occurs whenever something emotionally significant is no longer in a person’s life. Grief is the mental or emotional pain that we experience because of loss. We tend to associate these with death or the big losses like layoffs or breakups, but people can experience a sense of loss over anything emotionally significant. During this time of intentional isolation, we are all feeling loss in one way or another.

As time goes on and more people get sick and businesses remain closed, the losses will accumulate. Simple things like the loss of regular gatherings that most healthy people take for granted can threaten our un-reflected-on sense of safety, and this loss of safety can be experienced as loss. Postponed surgeries or medical procedures to improve quality of life might be significant losses for some.

For many, the temporary loss of income or the status that comes with a job may cause significant emotional distress. Working adults may experience loss of routine and have a hard time navigating suddenly working from home while simultaneously homeschooling children. Students may be experiencing the loss of sports teams, senior recognition nights, proms, graduations, finishing driver’s education—many significant rites of passage in high school and college. Younger children may be experiencing the loss of a beloved teacher they didn’t get to say goodbye to or even the loss of a classroom pet they cared for. Some may have lost their “safe space” away from tense or abusive home environments.

As the number of cases of infection rise, people will begin experiencing loss of health or loved ones as well—all while in isolation from their usual sources of comfort. These losses can leave people feeling un-anchored and adrift, struggling to find a “new normal” for the duration of this crisis.

Everyone experiences loss differently. It’s important to keep in mind that what one person may experience as an annoyance or even a welcome break may be a devastating loss to someone else. Here, as with much of disaster spiritual and emotional care, it’s important to focus on what the person you are ministering to sees as important and to support them as they process that loss, even if it seems insignificant to you or as if they are focusing on something minor when they are experiencing a major loss alongside it (the smaller loss may be a needed distraction from the larger one they are not ready to deal with).

Mourning is an expression of loss and grief. Mourning often includes both personal expressions of grief and the more public or ceremonial social norms and events surrounding loss. Losses that bring grief and mourning in normal times may be more difficult to cope with during this time as the predictable patterns of social support and ritualized events surrounding mourning or life transitions are more difficult to navigate. For example, loved ones may not be allowed to be present at the death of a loved one in a hospital; funerals may be small private affairs without the comfort of loved ones from near and far gathering to remember the deceased and support the grieved.

You can help those you care for by brainstorming ways to adapt rituals to this time. Are there ways a family can have their own ceremonies to mark rites of passage? Can a congregation or loved ones be encouraged to intentionally write notes of remembrance or gather for a virtual “wake” on Zoom or Skype and share stories and grieve together?

Know your own limits and refer those who are beyond your ability to help. People in need of emotional and spiritual support generally fall into one of three groups:

  • Those who have struggled before and benefitted from professional assistance: these people may be more vulnerable to emotional struggle during this time of isolation or the current crisis may resurface issues long dealt with. This group might ordinarily seek formal help because they have found it to be beneficial in the past but may need assistance accessing that help remotely if in-person visits are unavailable.
  • Those who have pre-existing physical or mental health challenges: high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, marital issues, substance abuse issues—all of which could be exacerbated by social distancing orders and all of the emotional and financial stress that it brings (even to the healthy). Having a safe person to act as a sounding board for these people and their families can alleviate some of the stress. A referral to a professional counselor may be most helpful.
  • Those who have adequate coping skills under “normal” circumstances, but need a little help in this prolonged period of isolation and perceived threat: this group is the one that someone with no specific training may be most able to help and encourage through the crisis.

If you are checking in on someone in the first two categories, having knowledge of counselors who can consult via phone or video chat may be helpful.

Grief can manifest with physical symptoms. It may be reassuring to someone, in a time when we are all more attuned to every potential symptom of illness, to know that suffering from a tight feeling in the chest or throat, oversensitivity to noise, feeling short of breath, or experiencing a lack of energy can be normal symptoms of grief and not necessarily indicative of an underlying health problem. That said, these often-normal reactions to stress can also indicate serious medical conditions. Refer potentially serious symptoms to medical care to get checked out.

It can be helpful just to name loss and grief. Because much of what we are facing are non-traditional losses or feel temporary, it may be hard for someone to identify what they are feeling. Simply expressing losses and being with them through the emotions of grief can be helpful (this is often called a Ministry of Presence). Once we recognize we are feeling loss and grief, we can effectively work through the pain of the loss and adjust to our new environment and move into a new normal. It is at this point that people are often ready to look beyond themselves and what they have lost to others around them who are hurting, and they can pass along the support you have given them to someone else.

Knowing the available resources in your community for those experiencing loss. Are there counselors offering Tele-care or telephone consultations? Are there sources of financial or feeding assistance? Are there resources being offered by schools for at-home learning? Are there people who can talk others through setting up Facebook or Zoom accounts to connect with friends and family? Are there alternatives available for rituals surrounding loss or transition? Are there ways to safely volunteer and help other people instead of focusing solely on their own losses?

Your listening ear and caring response to loss and grief can make a difference. Connection to others is important during this time of isolation and loss. Never underestimate the power of comfort in Jesus’s name to transform lives.

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, NLT).

Kristen Curtis is BGAV’s Training and Chaplaincy Coordinator for Disaster Response.