The Complicated Grief of COVID

by Deb Vaughn 

In early April, one of my co-workers asked me, How do we DO this? How do we remember those who have died and keep going? Where is God in all of this? And does God even care? We were overwhelmed as multiple patients died in a week, some within hours of coming onto our service. For months, this has been a shared reality in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices around the world. 

There seems to be no time to grieve. No time to remember. Clergy and church leaders experience the constant strain of restrictions, social distancing, and safety precautions for themselves and their members. We long for predictability, for being able to gather safely. We miss real-time conversations and in-person worship. We are facing and coping with systemic, complicated loss. We have a collective grief that weighs heavily on our spirits. 

In a Zoom call with other Alliance chaplains last spring, we shared the stresses and fears we faced. The risk of reusing PPE. The tension between caring for patients, supporting staff, and our own fears of catching the virus. We offered strategies and resources for managing our stress. I struggled to process all these deaths, as many of us have. I used all my “chaplain tricks” to honor, breathe, make space, reflect… day after day. Coping does not come naturally. 

Deep down, we want things to be “normal.” But that is impossible. Our emotional landscape has shifted forever. Just like the witnesses of Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and Sandy Hook, we watch the unthinkable unfold and try to make sense of it, to adapt. And part of adapting is finding our way through the accompanying stress and shock of so many deaths, of so much loss. It is emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausting. It is the work of grief. 

Sometimes, we are numb. We self-isolate because it’s all too much. Parents and pastors feel stretched but fight for those moments to reset. Snatched moments of prayer and reflection are carved out here and there. We study, write, pray, Zoom, preach, and do it all over again the next week. 

There are times that an event or an art installation will move us to tears. The AIDS quilt on the National Mall in 1995. The reading of names on the anniversaries of 9/11. The “angels” along the roads near Sandy Hook Elementary. Friends in DC shared that when the National Cathedral in Washington, DC tolled their largest bell 300 times, one for every 1,000 dead, the tolling lasted almost 20 minutes. It barely expressed the full scope of this pandemic, but it was an attempt to help us grasp its severity. 

With the start of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, we begin to have hope for “an end.” Despite a medical answer, there still is this monumental wave of grief. It is like a tsunami, sitting off shore, holding the tears of thousands of families and congregations. We have not been able to gather safely to mourn. We haven’t hugged and cried, and heard scriptures of promise and peace. We have not come together to share stories of justice and injustice, of faith and courage. These rituals of mourning will take untold months, even years, as ripple after ripple of loss come to light.

In addition to our grief, we have witnessed traumatic loss because of prejudice and racism. As epidemiologists begin their retrospective analysis, the statistics show a disproportionate loss of Native American, Latino and Black lives because of healthcare disparities. Those who are older, have health challenges, are uninsured, or homeless have died in higher percentages than the wealthy and powerful. And that just represents the lives lost in the United States. The global impact is… overwhelming. 

The grief we are experiencing is complicated. It has many layers, each with its own muddled resolution. Financial stressors for households and churches mount as many face layoffs. Unemployment impacts housing security and food shortages. Disruptions to supply chains, workplaces, schools, healthcare, and support networks affect our sense of security. All of these pressure points contribute to our grief. 

There is no simple way to walk through a communal grief this deep, this pervasive. But even trauma, deep pain, and visceral grief can bear prophetic witness with a glimpse of the resurrection. There is no healing without knowing the Spirit of the Living God hears and knows your sorrow, and that others walk it with you, too. 

When we finally can gather again, what will it be like? Will there be laughter and tears? Yes, certainly. And there will still be grief that we will help each other carry. To be honest, we will struggle together as we learn how to mourn and grieve. There’s no such thing as “Six Easy Steps to Spiritual Peace After a Global Pandemic.” 

As I journeyed through Advent last December, I looked for reminders of God’s faithfulness in the past, and God’s promises for the future. I remembered that Christ is Immanuel: God With Us. With us in this momentous time of loss, and in the healing process of bringing our Beloved Communities closer to God’s justice and welcoming love. 

what I’m learning about grief … 

is that it is not me, 

but that it offers 

to become a friend 

a friend … 

who will lightly lay a hand 

on my shoulder 

when tears come in the dark 

Nancy Cross Dunham (shared on NPR’s Morning Edition) 


Rev. Deb Vaughn is a board-certified chaplain endorsed by the Alliance of Baptists. She works as a hospice chaplain in Montgomery County, Maryland. More of her writing is on her blog at: An Unfinished Symphony.

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