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A Time to Mourn

Is there room for our grief in God’s plan? Through the lens of faith, Christian scholars and ministers explore the healing powers of confessing what many try to conceal

July 22, 2020  | 3 min read

Rising senior Lindsey Sullivan had just wished her sister a safe trip back to Virginia during spring break when she learned that Pepperdine was closing its campuses amid the threat of COVID-19 and transitioning to an online format. Soon she, too, would fly home, and the hours she lovingly devoted to writing for the Graphic would be replaced by helping her single father raise her two younger siblings while juggling 17 units of coursework online.

“I replay that week in my head all the time because it affected every single aspect of my life as a student,” she shares about the drastic changes she experienced in mid-March 2020. A self-described sentimentalist, Sullivan was already anxious about saying goodbye to her friends, roommates, and fellow staff members at Pepperdine’s Housing and Residence Life and the Graphic. But wondering if she would ever see her friends again left Sullivan confused, shocked, and distressed—manifestations of the grief she felt over canceled opportunities and the loss of relationships.

It took weeks, however, for Sullivan to be able to admit that she was in mourning for fear that any complaining would indicate a distrust of God. After all, she was safe and healthy. Her family was spared from the hideous disease that had claimed thousands of lives. So, why was she anything but thankful?

“Grieving loss is crucial for navigating the coronavirus pandemic,” says Sharon Hargrave, executive director of the Boone Center for the Family at Pepperdine and a licensed marriage and family therapist in California and Texas. “Not grieving will result in destructive coping behaviors such as irritability, withdrawal, feelings of incompetence, or expectations of self-perfection. As Christians, our faith allows us to admit that loss and uncertainty are difficult, and having faith means you can walk through loss and uncertainty to get to the other side.”

For those providing spiritual guidance during the pandemic, Hargrave explains that advising believers simply to not be anxious and just trust God is detrimental to their healing. “Anxiety comes from fear, and fear has to be dealt with to alleviate the anxiety,” she says. “If we dismiss the anxiety, we are perceived as unrealistic, and that person will potentially stop listening to us. Instead, we must ask what fears are causing their anxiety, like the fear of contracting COVID-19 or losing their job. When we know what people fear, we can be helpful in giving support and helping them address the very issues they fear.”

Sullivan’s healing process began with a candid conversation with her spiritual mentor, Lisa Smith, Seaver College assistant professor of teaching English. “She said, ‘You’re not going to offend God by admitting you are hurting,’” recalls Sullivan, who, after opening up about her feelings in prayer and in journals, began seeking biblical guidance. Comforted by the perspective she gained from sharing her emotions, Sullivan discovered a deeper connection to her faith.

“When I saw that God’s plan gave me the space to mourn, I realized I don’t have to quickly move on from my grief or pretend everything is fine. I learned to be honest about where I am, to be vulnerable with God, and to openly go where I am called to be,” reveals Sullivan. “Completely trusting God felt like a form of worship.”

Smith notes that admitting need creates intimacy. “When we come honestly to God with pain or confusion, our honesty creates an opportunity for God to answer our questions, heal our hurt, and provide true comfort. He is very gentle with the hurting and broken.”

Mike Cope, director of ministry outreach in the Office of Church Relations at Pepperdine, explains that connecting with a church community during a time of uncertainty and grief can be lifesaving. Cope relates that after losing his 10-year-old daughter in 1994, an experience he shared in his fourth book, Megan’s Secrets: What My Mentally Disabled Daughter Taught Me About Life, he clung to his network of close friends who constantly prayed for him when he couldn’t gather the strength to speak. During the COVID-19 crisis, Cope says that connecting with others, whether through video chats, phone calls, texts, or emails, is critical to healing.

“Believers remind each other that God is faithful and that we have the strength to survive,” he says. “Part of relying on faith is trusting the people around you to uphold you, thus allowing them to ‘mourn with those who mourn,’ in the language of scripture.”

Cope also emphasizes the critical concept of lamenting, employing the prayer language used by Christians to communicate their grief with God. “Many Christians shy away from it because it feels faithless,” he says. “But lamenting is the ultimate form of faith: we take our doubts, fears, and sorrows to God.”

A recent study conducted by Hargrave showed that spiritual guidance promotes satisfaction in relationships, satisfaction with life, and feeling loved. In support of turning to God and to a church community during the pandemic, Hargrave says, “If we take time to grieve what has been lost, deal in the present realities, and help each other ride the emotional rollercoaster of uncertainty and unexpected blessings, we can become stronger in character and hope.”