COVID Christmas and the Wilderness of Grief

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This week’s post is offered by David Wang of the Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University. David blends research and teaching with clinical and pastoral work.  He is expert in trauma, grief and spiritual formation. We have asked him to help us navigate the grief that so many of us are facing this Advent. – Drew

During this season of Advent, our notion of time is held in tension somewhere between the past and the future of God’s story. We remember the birth of Christ and the Incarnation and we look forward to the His Second Coming, when the Kingdom of God will be fully consummated and the world as we know it will pass away.

And yet, this year, we hold an additional tension—the present moment finds us still in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic. We face the harsh reality that the world as we once knew it has indeed already passed. We remain unsure of what or when the world to come will arrive. And so we now live within a liminal space between the “what was” and the “next.”

Occupying and navigating this liminal space can be challenging, painful, and disorienting—though it is a path that has been well-traveled by the people of God from generations past, including Christ Himself (Matt. 26:36-46). And yet, there are unique challenges to our present circumstances that defy historical precedent.

Naming and Claiming Our Losses

How, then, are we to navigate our present circumstances as people of faith? By entering into the wilderness of grief. On one side of liminality (i.e., the only side we can see clearly as of now) is the world which now has passed, including all that was lost within it.  David Kessler argues that the discomfort we have been experiencing all along throughout the pandemic is actually grief.

Loss can take many different shapes and forms, incorporating both the concrete as well as the symbolic. Over the past year, many of us have lost loved ones due to COVID-19 or other causes. And many of us will feel the sting of a loss of Christmas as we normally experience it—perhaps because we are unable to congregate due to travel restrictions and social distancing—or for others who are able to be physically together, through profound disruptions in family ties over politics and race. We have lost our daily and weekly rhythms of work and life. We have lost our sense of control over our lives and circumstances.  We have lost the feeling of being out in the world without needing to be constantly vigilant about catching a disease we cannot see.

Many of these latter losses are forms of ambiguous loss. Dr. Robert Neimeyer, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, explains that ambiguous losses “lack the clarity and definition of a single point like a death” and thus can be more difficult to move on from.

Moreover, the many forms of grief and loss experienced during this season of COVID-19 are nuanced and multi-layered, entailing not only ambiguous loss, but also concrete loss, setting off a course of grief that is both anticipatory and complicated. But regardless of its shape and form, Neimeyer suggests that the first step towards coping with loss is to “name it and claim it.” Indeed, this initial step is crucial as it allows us to disarm and move past denial, the first of five stages of grief identified by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

Said differently using the vernacular of some Christian communities, just as Christians can name and claim the promises of God, Christians are also to name and claim their grief. One study found that acknowledging our losses by writing them down in a journal can improve both our physical and mental health during times of emotional upheaval.

  • Is our pandemic-induced discomfort actually grief? Grief expert David Kessler thinks it is.
  • The American Psychological Association looked at grief and COVID-19.
  • So has the CDC in another helpful resource.
  • How can organizations address grief? McKinsey offers some suggestions that can help your business or church.
  • Now is a great time to refresh your knowledge of the five stages of grief (and a proposed new sixth one)
  • David considered the context of the church in this piece about grief, trauma, and the ongoing pandemic.
  • Or listen to David discuss it in this recent podcast.
  • This interview with David also considers his work on spiritual formation, character and preparing pastors for ministry.

Virtual Grief

Yet another form of loss during this advent season concerns the loss of spiritual community and communal expressions of faith. Congregational gatherings have been abruptly transitioned online, moved to outdoor spaces, and/or limited to a fraction of typical capacity. And though technology provides a means for us to remain in contact through computerized images, something vitally important remains missing when we are unable to be physically present with one another.

In fact, the Advent season validates this grief, reminding us that physical presence and relational embodiment is a value and practice that cannot be understated from the standpoint of our faith; God Himself models this through the Incarnation (Phil. 2:5-8). Indeed, the Triune Godhead is a relational being who has created humanity to be relational beings as well—relationality is a sacred means through which humans reflect the image of God. And relationality, according to science, is also a key ingredient to cultivating resilience in the face of highly distressful situations. Research has identified social support as one of the most consistent and powerful predictors of resilience and recovery from trauma.

Social support can take on many different forms—it can be emotional (aimed at meeting emotional needs), instrumental (aimed at meeting practical needs), formal (with professionals such as psychologists or counselors), and informal (with family and friends). Every kind of social support is helpful, and even within the restrictions now in place, there are ways (some of which may require creativity) in which we can provide each kind of support to one other.

Above all, let us not neglect to seek out and receive Christ’s accompaniment in our journey of grief. Scripture affirms that we can approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, for we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who Himself has been tempted (and has suffered) in every way, just as we are now (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Take care,


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