Mid-March marks one year since the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated shutdowns came into the consciousness of most Americans. The natural sense of excitement, anticipation, and joy at the increasing warmth and new life that accompanies this time of year seems heightened this spring as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to decrease (fingers crossed).
Of course, many are excited for things to “get back to normal” (or at least to some “new normal”) as much as possible. We human beings need to have such hopes to hang on to in our darker times.
Even so, we should not ignore the pervasive loss that we experienced both individually and collectively. First, we need to mourn.
The Book of Mormon prophet Alma said that a prerequisite of a covenant people is to be “willing to mourn with those that mourn.”
Over my more than six decades of life, I have been called on to mourn with those that mourn and have had my own share of opportunities to mourn and grieve. I am not a grief counselor nor am I a particularly sensitive or compassionate person. And I struggle with the same kinds of anxieties and weaknesses as everyone else.
But I have tried to observe carefully and learn about grief. And below I share some thoughts that I hope might be helpful to you and those with whom you mourn as you comfort each other. I encourage any reader who desires additional assistance to reach out to trusted loved ones and friends, to religious leaders, and/or to professionals who are experienced in grief counseling.
Embracing the Need to Mourn Together
While mourning and comforting others who are mourning can bring sweet relief and deep peace, it can also be difficult and painful. The American poet Robert Bly observed that many want to soar above sadness, having great difficulty confronting grief and pain directly.
Although most of us would naturally love to skip the sorrow, the sadness, the tears, and the other wrenching emotions surrounding grief, without being willing to mourn—and mourn together—we will not be able to fully embrace the joyful end of this pestilence.
Like any difficult process, this typically takes time and practice to learn to do so well. Yet as hard as it may be, our mourning—particularly mourning with others in positive ways—can help us heal and has other benefits as well.
By contrast, unresolved grief can create psychological and relational challenges that can range from minor to significant—something I’ve seen in counseling others in both professional and pastoral settings.
In the film First Man, we witness the powerful journey of Neil Armstrong to reach the moon—a quest that—like his marriage and family—was nearly derailed by unresolved grief (about a three-year-old daughter lost to cancer, and several friends and fellow astronauts to accidents along the way). Neil Armstrong’s inability to address his grief in healthy ways led to a variety of personal and relational problems. The film nicely captures that while it is possible to “be tough” and “press forward” in your work and life in the face of profound grief, there is a steep price for oneself and one’s loved ones that comes with unresolved grief.
A Spectrum of Grief
Since March of 2020, all of us have experienced losses of many kinds. This is made worse by the reality that many loved ones and friends were not able to be with people as they neared the end of their lives. People have not been allowed to congregate and mourn together and comfort each other. And hundreds of millions have not been able to gather to grieve in ways they are used to and would have liked to.
For many people, their grieving process was also disrupted by not being able to gather in places of worship and/or under the direction of trusted religious leaders. Religious ritual can be helpful to many people across various faiths and the comfort provided by words spoken from familiar scriptures, consoling funerary rites, meaningful religious symbols, and the physical presence of friends and fellow believers all can bring a measure of peace.
As we begin to gather once again in the near future, there will be many among us who will be experiencing some degree of delayed grieving as we remember our previous inability to fully mourn those whom we lost during the COVID-19 shutdowns. There will be a kind of layered grieving occurring as we mourn the immediate loss along with our prior inability to fully mourn our previous loss or losses.
The variety of losses due to COVID-19 and its related shutdowns extend far beyond death. How many felt or continue to feel a sense of loss because, after March of last year, they were not able to gather to celebrate births, birthdays, marriages, graduations, religious rites of passage (e.g., Christenings, baptisms, bar/bat mitzvahs), and many other milestones?
People had to put off long-planned-for activities on their bucket lists, long-yearned for trips (e.g., religious pilgrimages, needed vacations, seeing beloved relatives), of which some will no longer be possible to enjoy.
For young people, in particular, there was a real sense of sadness that they were not able to celebrate their special day (e.g., prom) or achievement in the way that they (and others) desired. The natural tendency will be simply to plan some kind of redo. This is a wonderful idea. However, in the midst of the celebration. It is likely that, at least for some of those involved, there will also be some kind of grieving that will be part of this celebration and it is important to recognize and honor this grief as well.
Anxiety Around Providing Comfort
Because we do not tend to talk much about how to grieve nor how to help each other in our grief, many of us find that we are not quite sure what to do or say (or not do or not say) when trying to comfort someone experiencing the pain of significant loss.
This lack of confidence can bring significant anxiety and, in an effort to avoid this, can lead us to avoid this process and avoid the people who most need our presence in their time of loss. Being what grief counselors call a “non-anxious presence” with someone who is mourning is not easy for all of us but can make a big difference in their grief processes. Being a non-anxious presence involves being present with a person in mourning without bringing our own anxieties about loss.
We need to be compassionate and patient with ourselves and with others as we all go through the grieving process together. While there can be great consolation in having other persons there physically, if that is not possible then Zoom calls, phone calls, cards, emails, or even texts are certainly better than nothing.
Navigating Incongruent Grief
It may be a challenge to mourn with someone who is mourning quite differently than you. Incongruent grief because of differences across gender, culture, personality, and beliefs is common.
For example, compared to some, other’s grief tends to be: (a) less openly expressive (nonverbal grief), (b) more cognitive (efforts to understand and resolve intellectually), (c) experienced in isolation (emotion expressed privately), (d) left unresolved (not addressed, expressed, or discussed), (e) associated with anger (at God, fate, others, self), or (f) associated with shame (“real men don’t cry” or “I should be the strong one” or “I must lack testimony or faith since I should be over this by now” or the almost universal sense of “maybe I could have prevented the loss”).
To mourn with someone who is mourning, therefore, often means being willing to mourn in a way that we may not be familiar or comfortable with. Comforting someone who needs comfort often means comforting them in ways you are not familiar or comfortable with. For example, in a marriage, each spouse may need to understand and remember that they may not be comfortable grieving in the same way or at the same pace as their spouse.
As best we can, we ought to allow for differences of grieving and support each other by mourning with the other. True compassion involves suffering with someone, not just feeling sorrow for someone.
So, if your spouse needs to talk but you don’t, still try allowing them to talk. If your spouse would prefer not to talk, you might also allow for silence and not try to push verbal expression of emotion on them.
Likewise, parents may need to understand and remember that their children are likely not going to grieve in the same way and at the same pace as adults. Parents need to allow and perhaps assist their children to grieve in ways that are age- and personality-appropriate.
It is also important to allow and encourage children to grieve. Rather than trying to shield children from funerals and discussions of death or the deceased person, let’s nurture rituals of remembrance. And let’s allow these precious youth to express their feelings in whatever way is age and personality appropriate (art, writing, talking, being alone).
The Ministry of Mourning with Others
The Lord Jesus Christ is our great exemplar in mourning with others. The Savior’s actions when He came to Bethany to be with Mary and Martha as they grieved the loss of their brother Lazarus is a wonderful example. The Bible records, “When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit and was troubled. And he said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto him, Lord, come and see. Jesus wept. Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!” (John 11:33-36).
Those who observed that Jesus wept assumed it was because He loved Lazarus. That was certainly true. However, I believe that Jesus wept with Mary and Martha and others who were weeping because He loved all of them.
He knew He soon would raise Lazarus from the dead. He knew they would rejoice in this great miracle. Nonetheless, Jesus showed compassion for their present sense of loss and separation. Because He loved them, He mourned with them.
Reflecting on Your Own Grief and Healing
We all have our comfort zones in how we manage our own emotional challenges, trials, losses, and suffering. You might ask yourself: What are my own tendencies in how I grieve? Are there ways that my present tendencies are blocking my ability to grieve in healthy ways?
For various reasons, many of us have deep and profound unresolved pain and confusion about losses we have experienced but not yet grieved about or are still struggling with. Consider exploring: How can I receive guidance and help from the Lord, loved ones, friends, or professionals in helping me address my own unresolved grief over my losses? How can I learn to emotionally and spiritually heal from losses that have profoundly confused and/or troubled me that I have not yet been able/willing to confront?
Many of us also face barriers in being comforted by others. Barriers may stem from various sources, including how we were raised, what we have experienced, our temperament and personality, the spiritual condition of our hearts and souls, and our personal choices to open ourselves up to comfort. You might ask yourself: What are the barriers I personally have faced or now face in experiencing comfort in the midst of grief from the Lord and/or from others? What can I do to make progress toward overcoming these barriers? How can the Lord or my loved ones (or a professional) help me overcome these barriers?
There are many defense mechanisms that can also influence how we deal with our own emotional pain and confusion and how we respond to others who are experiencing pain and confusion. Consider asking: How can I grow in my ability to overcome my personal tendencies and defenses to better be able to obtain the comfort, healing, and resolutions that I need around my grief?
Reflecting on Your Ministry to Others Who Are Grieving
We are each on our own personal journey toward being able to mourn with those that mourn in a healing way. In particular, we each have ways we grow in our personal spiritual, emotional, and relational capacities to better minister to our brothers and sisters who are mourning. You might ask yourself: What are the most important ways for me personally to grow in my ability to mourn with those that mourn? What resources do I need to assist me in my journey? How can I grow personally to allow me to better mourn with someone who mourns in different ways than I do or in ways with which I am less comfortable?
Many good and caring people find that they are tempted to do one of the following when faced with the prospect of being with someone who has experienced a troubling and painful loss: avoid the person, pity the person, judge the person, or preach to the person. Many others experience anxiety and discomfort when faced with the need to engage with others who are mourning. You might ask yourself: What anxieties do I experience when called on to mourn with and comfort others? How can I counter any personal temptations I may have to do one of the above so that I can mourn with the person?
God asks us to “mourn with” those who are mourning rather than merely to pray for, talk to, serve, teach, encourage, love, or lift them. Of course, those are all good things to help in comforting someone who is mourning. But the scripture specifically invites us to “mourn with” them. Consider ways that mourning with someone might help you to better comfort that person. And you might also ask: What personal anxieties, fears, weaknesses, or problems do I have that might make it more difficult for me to mourn with someone? And how can the Lord, a loved one, a friend, my ministering companion, or a Church leader help me grow in my abilities to mourn with a person who is mourning?
The Lord knows what each of His children most need to comfort them in different stages of their grieving process. Ask yourself: How can I obtain spiritual guidance in my efforts to minister by mourning with those who are mourning?
It is better if we do not assume that because some time—even years—have passed or that someone “seems” to be doing fine, that they are “over” their loss. Many who have experienced profound loss say it feels like you are standing in the waves at the beach; even if you don’t feel like you are drowning, waves of grief are still present. You might ask yourself: How can I grow in my ability to be with someone in their grief—even their long-standing grief—when I think that perhaps they should “get over” their loss?
Learning from Our Jewish Friends
Throughout more than three millennia of their wanderings and sufferings, our Jewish friends have experienced more loss and grief than any other people. In the crucible of affliction, they have learned how to mourn together.
There are a number of very beautiful and wise specific practices associated with the Jewish mourning process including tearing an outer garment, having mourners “sit Shiva” on low chairs or stools in the home for seven days, and reciting together the Mourner’s Kaddish which is a prayer of praise to God (said each day in the first seven days following the death and then each year on the anniversary of the death).
One important Jewish mourning practice is about the appropriate way to interact with the loved ones of a deceased person. The traditional practice is that when a person goes to mourn with a person who has experienced the loss no greetings are exchanged. Rather, the visitor waits for the person in mourning to initiate the conversation and lead the conversation where they wish it to go. This allows mourners to decide if and what they prefer to discuss rather than what the visitor might want to say and this hopefully removes any expectation for the mourner to comfort the visitor.
This is consistent with the idea that just sitting close to someone who is mourning and being with them in their pain often is preferable to trying to comfort them with thoughts and words that may or may not be helpful to them.
Seeking Someone to Mourn with You
In seeking someone to mourn with you, here are some things to consider:
Qualities to seek: Someone who is understanding, wise, patient, kind, mature, and a good listener. For many, a spouse is a wonderful person with whom to grieve. However, not all spouses are able to do so in a way that is helpful and healing. Some have their own grief issues, others have many other burdens. Others would like to help but are unsure what to do. If you can find a loved one or good friend who really knows and loves you, that is a good person to consider.
Things to do: ponder, pray, weep, converse, read, walk, hug, hold, be held. Let others mourn with you. Try not to push them away (however kindly you do it).
What to avoid: someone who is not capable or willing to really listen. Someone who cannot resist “one-upping” other people or bringing everything back to them and their problems. There are few who know how to fully address difficult emotions like grief. Wait for a good time and situation. Avoid public places (e.g., church meetings). It is unlikely that you will get to the heart of the matter or get much relief in one short conversation. Avoid denying loss and pain; avoid delaying grieving; avoid displacing mourning into work (including Church service); avoid distracting yourself from mourning (e.g., workaholism, addictions, amusements, hobbies).
Some Final Thoughts
For Christians, including members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, part of the joy of spring comes from the approach of the Easter season in which we remember the morning of Christ’s resurrection that followed the nights of His disciples’ grief over His crucifixion.
The joy that infused the Savior’s disciples that Easter morn was a marvelous fulfillment of the Psalmist who said, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning (Psalms 30:5).
Enduring a night of weeping is much less difficult if someone is weeping with us. Latter-day Saints believe in a God of such compassion that he weeps in response to the suffering of human beings (Moses 7:41). Even more comfort can come when we know that others who know and love us are weeping with us through our long, difficult night.
May we all be willing to mourn with each other, to comfort each other, and to help each other through the dark nights of our souls that we might better enjoy the joy of the morning together.
A Summary List of Some Comforting Do’s and Don’ts:
- Try to be a non-anxious presence.
- Allow for lengthy and recurring grieving.
- Eliminate expectations about other’s grieving processes and allow them to go through the grief process at their pace and in their way.
- Avoid trying to “make everything alright” with your understanding.
- Listen more than you talk.
- Hold hands, hug, or be near the grieving person.
- Try to anticipate needs and just fill them rather than just ask “is there anything I can do?”
- Talk about the person who has died even though it may be uncomfortable at first to do so.
- Encourage and participate in “rituals of remembrance” (remembering birthdays, anniversaries, etc.).
- Stand as a witness of God as the One—the only One—who can bring the kind of comfort needed.
- Assume that a doctrinal understanding that is comforting for you will be comforting for another person.
- Judge people for how, when, or where they grieve.
- Feel responsible to make the pain go away.
- Assume that your understanding of the gospel is the same as the person you are comforting (handicapped child, early death, need for ordinances, etc.).
- Assume that if someone cries at a funeral or does not “get over it” within some period of time that they are lacking in testimony or faith.
David C. Dollahite, Ph.D. is Camilla Eyring Kimball Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University and Co-director of the American Families of Faith project.