Handling Grief Amid a Pandemic

Handling Grief Amid a Pandemic

For the past year, the world has experienced incalculable trauma: a pandemic that has killed millions, racial and political unrest, devastating storms and wildfires, and an economic collapse. Most lives have been touched by some form of grief, including among our Woodward community. In ordinary times, Woodward Chaplain Katie O’Dunne offers an open door to those who need to talk or pray or just need some comfort. But the limits of physical distancing have made that work all the more challenging.

O’Dunne has continued to be there for those grieving—albeit in new ways—and she has been a leader over the past year with the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education, which fosters ethical thinking, a sense of purpose, and the advancement of empathy, equity, and justice. Beyond the Gate spoke with O’Dunne about her work with CSEE and her advice on handling grief amid the pandemic.

Beyond the Gate: How did you become connected to CSEE?

Katie O’Dunne: The CSEE has partnered with Woodward since before I began my tenure as the chaplain! In the summer of 2015, I attended my first CSEE conference for religious educators in preparation for my new role teaching Comparative Religions at Woodward. Since then, I have appreciated the resources and community of this organization and have attended conferences and virtual meetings, and in the past year I began to chair meetings and plan conferences, including one of responding to grief.

We met virtually to talk about ways to support students experiencing hardship during the pandemic. I found that regardless of location, a common struggle was present and there is common humanity united by grief. It was a pleasure to facilitate the conversation across so many schools focused on defining grief, holding space for grief in the midst of loss during a pandemic, supporting students/families, and policies to support those experiencing hardship.

BTG: Tell us more about the discussion around grief in these conferences.

KO: One of the highlights of the most recent chaplain’s conference was the opportunity to include our Woodward students in the discussion. A group of students spent an hour with this large group of chaplains with the purpose of sharing what they need from a spiritual and mental health perspective during the pandemic. I was impressed and deeply moved by the level of authenticity of this group of students. They explored topics with the chaplains related to changes, grief, anxiety, and hope for the future that students are currently experiencing.

BTG: For you, what have been the challenges of the past year, in which there has been a lot of suffering while also the strictures of physical distancing? 

KO: The largest challenge has been offering support during times of grief and struggle while physically distancing. One of my biggest pastoral tools over the last six years has been ministry of presence, which is challenging behind a computer or beneath a mask. And yet, I’ve done my best to get creative with the varied types of grief our community has experienced. For instance, in addition to experiencing loss of a family member or friend, students might be experiencing grief as a result of losing a final sports season, typical senior events, interactions with friends at lunch, and even things as simple as making funny faces at one another in the hallway. For students eating lunch at home while remote or even in isolated classrooms away from friends, this experience can very much lead to a sense of deep grief and loss.

BTG: What have been your tactics in responding to those who have suffered loss? 

KO: Responding to those experiencing grief, loss, or hardship has looked very different during a pandemic. I’ve been using “safe” tactics over the last year, such as virtual prayer times, virtual memorial services, socially distanced outdoor funerals, open spiritual chats via zoom, special care packages, video recorded support messages to community members, video prayers, and even virtual memory boxes. Some methods have been more effective than others, but I’ve learned that connection points are still the most important...to show care, love, and support for one another. This is the most important whether we are physically distanced or next to one another.

BTG: For those who are grieving and struggling, what do you recommend or advise?

KO: Those experiencing loss might not be able to gather with family members for a memorial service. Furthermore, students struggling with their mental or spiritual health might feel isolated from resources that are typically helpful. I’ve worked with some students who feel “guilty” when struggling with their mental health, as they don’t wish to “burden” anyone during a pandemic. My biggest advice would be to remind students, teachers, parents, employees, and families that each individual is uniquely, beautifully, and wonderfully made. However, you are feeling as a result of the pandemic, your mental health, or another hardship in your life, your emotions are valid and can be shared—you are never a burden. I always advocate reaching out for help, and I am always happy to walk with you through this process.

BTG: For parents, is there any particular advice you have, things to look for with their kids, questions to ask, etc.?

KO: I would encourage parents to continue to ask their kids how they are feeling, perhaps even modeling this for them by sharing their own emotions and experiences. This is the time to talk about our emotions and to let our kids know it is “okay to not be okay,” but also that they are never alone. I believe this is also a time when students feel overburdened by work, technology, grief, emotions, pandemics, and tragedy in the world. This is the time to let students know that they can talk about how they are feeling, there is no shame if they are in need of a little extra help, and that they are valued. I believe that now, more than ever, is the time to model and encourage self-compassion, reminding our kids tangibly everyday that no matter how they are feeling, they are unique, they are valued, and the world is a better place because they are in it. If you notice that a child is withdrawing or changing behavior, it is also a perfect time to reach out for help and additional resources. I am always happy to talk through this process, and our amazing counseling team is always ready to support your family.