Coping strategies for dealing with deep grief
1. We acknowledge the loss out loud, identify, name, and feel the emotions.
As we grow and mature, we learn new coping strategies. Our repertoire of coping strategies is like a “possibles bag” we carry around with us. When a crisis occurs, we dig around in the bag and come out with the most appropriate coping strategy. The more strategies we have developed, the more ability we will have to successfully cope with whatever the new stressor might be. When we have tried everything else, and every other strategy we had has failed, at the very bottom of the bag is denial. If we can’t cope with a situation at all, we will simply deny its existence. This is the first coping strategy we learn for how to deal with not getting what we need. It’s why little babies turn their heads away from unpleasant stimuli. Denial of reality does not make the reality go away; it only signals that we lack any other strategy to cope with the issue. Denial almost never makes things better; only more complicated and messy.
The very act of speaking the unpleasantness out loud has enormous power. Identifying what we have lost; speaking aloud how much the loss hurts, putting names to our feelings, and using those names out loud to describe what we are feeling is an effective and healthy way to begin coping with our grief.
2. We remind ourselves of past challenges we have successfully overcome
The Hebrew Scriptures spend significant time remembering and rehearsing God’s mighty acts of the past; remembering past events when we, (or others) have faced adverse times and God has seen us through. The eleventh Chapter of Hebrews features a drumbeat of rehearsing the mighty acts of God and how a litany of people responded by faith. By faith Abel, by faith Enoch, by faith Noah, and Abraham, and Sara, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. Each of these names evoke for us memories of struggle and perseverance, of faithful people gathering up their faith in God and responding to events by faith. Each of these names connect us to a story of how God intervened and led people through overwhelming struggles.
We as individuals can bring forth our own litany of challenges in our own lives when we felt as if we were about to be overwhelmed, but we made it through.
This congregation (Zion-Burlington) has stories about critical moments when there were financial challenges, when there were fears about the future. As a congregation made up of German immigrants, Zion continued to conduct worship in German for decades, maintaining emotional connections to the homeland. When World Wars against Germany came along, German speaking congregations were thrust into conflict with other Americans due to emotions fueled by the stress of the war. Zion adapted and overcame the challenges.
Our history of past successes overcoming challenges assures us that we have the emotional and spiritual resources to overcome this present challenge of an epidemic.
There are few if any people alive who remember the 1918 Influenza epidemic, but the world has faced pandemics before. There are lessons to learn from the 1918 flu pandemic; how communities mitigated the death toll, and what happened when other communities reopened too soon and set off second and third waves of sickness.
That 1918 pandemic taught us valuable lessons. Those who study public health and epidemiology have spent years learning those lessons. They are a priceless trove of wisdom about how to respond to this time, and of the dangers when politicians fail to take appropriate decisions.
3. Semper Gumby. Remember Gumby? He was a doll-star in a Claymation kid’s program that started in the 1960’s. Growing out of the TV show, the dolls (Action toys?) became a huge hit. The doll was made out of some kind of clay, rubber, plastic, or some such. You could bend it, stretch it all out of shape, nothing could harm Gumby. No matter how out of shape he was bent, he always came out OK.
One of the Disaster groups I volunteered in trained us that no situation will ever go as planned. Change was not only inevitable; it would be continuous and constant. The trainers emphasized to us that we needed to be always flexible in our plan and response, because everything would be constantly changing. Be always flexible was their teaching point. So that group adopted a motto to remind us: “Semper Gumby.” Always flexible.
Almost all of us can manage some level of change. What gets us is when the amount and rate of change come at us faster than we can adapt. When we cling too closely to one set of conditions, we risk breaking down when those conditions change. In the end, remaining flexible as changes come is a powerful coping strategy. Semper Gumby.
4. We create new rituals. Rituals inform our emotions when words are insufficient. They are very important and mostly under-appreciated. The familiar routines of getting dressed for work in the morning and the special routines of dressing for Worship on Sunday morning become their own kind of daily life rituals. The Sunday rituals of greeting long-time friends, inhaling that sense of God’s presence as we enter the well-known sanctuary, sitting in our favorite spot in the sanctuary, the familiar sounds and sights and smells that make it so easy to move into an attitude of worship. We have had to set aside most of those for now.
For now, worship is happening on our living room couch, moderated through a computer screen. The familiar rituals now need to be replaced with new rituals which will signal our spirits to settle down and enter worship mode. Maybe that new ritual will involve lighting a special candle. Maybe, when it is time for worship, you will drink your coffee from a particular cup. Some of you will use dressing as part of your worship ritual. You may be in your home all alone, but you will put on your “Sunday best” as if you were coming to church. You are deliberately creating new rituals that let you know it is worship time.
5. At the end of the day, we know that God is our source of strength wherever we are. God is our now, our past, and our future moment when the storms will have passed and the sun will shine once again. We are children of God, beloved beyond all telling by the One who created us, redeemed us through Christ, and sustains us through the Holy Spirit, no matter what happens.