Grief and a Search for Meaning During Coronavirus
“So many people during this pandemic are [saying], ‘I don’t know why I burst into tears. I don’t know why I have such a heaviness. I don’t know why I’m so angry with an edge,’ and I’m like, ‘it’s grief. You’re feeling grief.’ The world we know and loved has now disappeared.”
David Kessler, author and grief expert and counselor, said people experience grief with a loss, whether that is loss due to death or divorce or even the coronavirus pandemic and our loss of normalcy. In a podcast earlier this month, Kessler talked about the stages of grief, a search for meaning and facing death.
The Assumptive World and Anticipatory Grief
According to Kessler, there’s something called “the assumptive world.” People tend to assume that their parents will live long lives, their marriages will be great and their kids will not have problems. “And what happens is death ends up interfering with those assumptions. We don’t live in a perfect world anymore,” He explained. “Death does ruin our illusions, our dreams.”
He continues that people are experiencing grief over the loss of what they thought would be. He calls it “anticipatory grief.”
“What happens in our new modern world with the pandemic is we have anticipatory grief that our mind starts showing us images of, ‘Oh my goodness, my parents could die, my grandparents could die, I could die.’ And we have this unhealthy anticipatory grief where our mind is showing us all the worst scenarios.”
Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, was also a Holocaust survivor. Frankl influenced Kessler to explore meaning — including the meaning of death. Kessler wrote a book with Elisabeth Kubler Ross, updating her 5 stages of grief to include a 6th. The stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
When his son died suddenly a few years ago, he realized that acceptance wasn’t enough. He wanted more. He wanted meaning. Kessler began interviewing people who had suffered the loss of a loved one, and saw that they were finding meaning. Meaning doesn’t take away the pain, but it becomes a “cushion” for those who’ve suffered through loss. “Finding meaning” is the sixth stage of grief. “The meaning we find is not in the death … I mean there’s not meaning in the death, but there’s meaning that we can do afterwards to honor them.”
While Kessler rejects the idea that everything happens for a reason, we as Christians have hope and trust that God has a plan for our lives, and our deaths. Our hope is in Jesus. Our hope is in the promise of eternal life. First Corinthians 15:42b says, “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable.”
Applying ‘Meaning Making’ to the Pandemic
People can apply “meaning making” to the pandemic by recognizing meaningful moments. Recognizing those moments will allow people to end up with “posttraumatic growth.”
“The front yards are full of parents playing with their children because their children can’t have play dates with other children. Those are meaningful moments FaceTiming with people. Those are meaningful moments. So many of these moments can be so meaningful.”
But here again, Kessler misses the heart of the story, the most important part, the most important Person. Meaning doesn’t come from moments, although moments can be precious. Meaning comes from who we are in Christ. As Christians, we are children of God (John 1:12). Our personhood is complete when Christ lives in us (Colossians 2:9-10). Making meaning of the pandemic we can say that God is in control, whether we live or whether we die (Luke 12:22-26; Romans 8:11; Philippians 1:21). And making meaning after the loss of a loved one means we have hope that they are with Christ and we will see them again.
The Essence of Our Hope
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul tells Christians we do not grieve like those who have no hope. Jesus will bring all those who have died in Christ to Heaven.
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
“Therefore,” he wrote, “encourage one another with these words.” Our hope is not in vain. Our souls do not die with our body. Although we do not hurry toward death, we do not fear it either.
Our circumstances are held in God’s hands. Even through grief, do not grieve as though there is no hope. There is. His name is Jesus.