When grace followed grief

A grief observed

Covid-19 has been a great disruption to our global world, medically, economically and socially. Older people have been the most vulnerable to the virus and whilst few young people have encountered health issues, they have experienced first-hand new forms of loss and grief over long awaited experiences or traditions which mark a moment of community transition, celebration and farewell.

Although this experience of loss and grief is less substantial than death or chronic health issues or hardship it is nevertheless significant and pervasive. In my own chaplaincy ministry context in a Melbourne school, the Year 12 students have been wrestling at different levels with a sense of grief and loss whilst seeking to be gratefully optimistic.

A grief explored

Understanding grief and loss, Psychologists Mitchell and Anderson write,

‘Grief is the normal but bewildering cluster of ordinary human emotions arising in response to significant loss, intensified and complication by the relationship to the person or the object lost’ (Mitchell and Anderson, 1983, 54).

Whilst they may have a significant loss such a death or chronic illness in view, they do leave room for the multivalent nature of grief and loss as it relates to one’s relationship to the person or the object lost. This relationship is not just relative to disposition but also experience and stage of development.

In Living Beyond Loss: Death in the family (Walsh and McGoldrick, 1991) they address the issue of family grief and how being members of a family system enables us to experience and learn from the multiple, fluctuating and conflicting responses of the loss and grief process. In the family we receive both a history of loss and pattern of how to respond to loss, infused by roles and expectations (Anderson, 2010). Being in Lockdown much of 2020, Year 12 students have been limited to their experience and that received from those in their household.

Grief and loss can be viewed as a normal part of the human life cycle yet it is can be deemed complicated influenced by a lack of preparation. In the experience of the unanticipated COVID-19 this is an important consideration to the reception and response of young people so too the open-ended nature of the phenomenon, ‘Is this the new norm?’

There is a common understanding that loss and grief should be seen as on a continuum with stages[1] yet remains more cyclical than linear affecting our whole person, mind, body and spirit (Anderson, 2010). Rituals are also seen as a necessary part of grieving any loss with recognition of the lived reality and remembrance ‘story telling’ invaluable (Anderson, 2010).

The grief of God

Scripture reminds us that grief and loss is part of being finite creatures in God’s good yet fallen world. To dare to love is to make room for the possibility of loss and pain (John 15). Whilst part of life, scripture also reveals that loss and grief is also perplexing and not easily resolved.[2]

In the New Testament, it is revealed that Christ himself did not escape loss and grief. He wept at the news of Lazarus death (John 11) and was also grieved at the loss or lack of faithfulness in Jerusalem and its coming judgment (Luke 19).

Understanding loss and grief it is important to consider the weightiness of our affections and what we are attaching ourselves to or with. Can a good thing such as the Year 12 Valedictory Ball or long anticipated performance/season become an ultimate thing or unhealthy attachment which is both deeply defining of self-worth and place within the community.

Within the tradition, Christian worship and its liturgical practices also enable the remembering, recognising and reframing of loss and grieve in a way which is both holistic, communal and storied.

A grief grounded

As Lockdown 2.0 began to be gradually lifted, the Year 12 students found themselves back on campus physically yet within one week we were bidding them farewell as they concluded formal classes.

Seeking to provide an experience(s) in their final days which was meaningful and recognised where we have been, where we are and where we hoped to be, was front of mind. It also had to be COVID safe!

Holding together the importance of remembering, recognising and reimagining a hopeful way forward, at 8.30am on Thursday 22nd October, I found myself with the privilege of standing on a school football oval in the midst of 200 physically distanced young adults. The space was charged with silence only interrupted by words of prayer and blessing. Standing beside me in the middle was a solitary tree, a sacred symbol of creation and new creation, and each person was invited to come forward and offer a reflection. All wearing masks and standing in the round, a personal and communal vulnerability was made visible, a grief was observed and we were reminded of God’s grace which meets us where we and invites us to be with him.


[1] The stages include, denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance, meaning. David Kessler, The Sixth Stage of Grief. Scribner: New York, 2019. Kessler a leading expert in grief has added the sixth stage of meaning to the commonly accepted first five stages.

[2] In the Old Testament we hear of Jacob mourning over the loss of Joseph and refusing to be comforted.

References

Anderson, Herbert. ‘Common Grief, Complex Grieving’. Pastoral Psychology 59 (2010): 127-136.

Kessler, David. The Sixth Stage of Grief. Scribner: New York, 2019

Mitchell, K. R., and H. Anderson. All our losses, all our griefs. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1983.

Walsh, F., & McGoldrick, M. (eds). Living beyond loss: Death in the family. New York: Norton, 1991.

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Ryan Holt Written by:

Ryan began as a teacher in the suburbs of Melbourne before spending a formative season in Pakistan with his wife Fiona, also a teacher. Arriving back in Melbourne he felt called to ordination in the Anglican Church and chaplaincy in schools. He is the Head of Chaplaincy at Caulfield Grammar School in Melbourne and a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Ridley College, Melbourne exploring the theology and practice of social engagement in schools.

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