Orange sunrise over a mountaintop
The sun rises over highland mountain passes in southern Malawi. (LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford)

Last week I wrote an article for youth ministry practitioners about working with youth during these unprecedented times. Through interactions with practitioners, friends and co-workers, I came to realize that adults may also need support and guidance in dealing with ambiguous loss. Below is the article edited to focus on ministering to all ages during this difficult time. (The original piece, along with other resources, is available here.)

I once came across a recipe for “Funeral Sandwiches.” Instantly, I knew the look and the taste of the sandwiches, even without the recipe. I am guessing many of you do as well. When a family mourns the death of a loved one, our congregations often have tangible traditions for how we support them. We have funeral sandwiches, funeral potatoes, a person who helps handle the flower deliveries and another who organizes meals. But what happens when the loss is more abstract?

We expect grief after a significant loss like a big move, a divorce, the loss of a job, or a death. Communities are quick to respond to these tangible, obvious experiences with love and understanding. We hold space for people in these times, helping them to navigate their situation and providing for their needs. We expect and are patient with a range of emotions, from anger to guilt to deep sadness. Support systems become active to care for physical and mental reactions like difficulty focusing or sleeplessness.

We don’t have a recipe or a plan for supporting those grieving an ambiguous loss. It is less obvious when the loss is a wedding postponed or an opportunity at work delayed. It can be hard to identify missing time with family, the ability to visit those who are older or to meet new infants as loss. But we can grieve any long-awaited and meaningful moments, from vacations to concerts. Often there are no special sandwiches or potatoes for these deeply painful moments. There is less patience and space for these losses.

As the church, we can bring warmth and grace into any loss, both clear and ambiguous. We can bring God’s love as we all grieve losses of what should have or could have been.

God is faithful, even in times when we experience loss. We have a God who walks with us through every aspect of life. God’s faithfulness through all generations to offer love and forgiveness brings us hope. The God who died on the cross to forgive our sins knows our name and our pain. Everyone will mourn differently, but we can all trust a faithful God to be with us through it all.

Check on people who have experienced a sudden loss of something long planned for or expected. Young people are struggling with missing proms, sport seasons and graduations. Adults may find uncertainty with their job or be disconnected from their supportive social circles. Zoom and other video conference tools are great, but they do not replace the loss of human interaction, physical connection and routine.

Addressing the loss directly and encouraging them to talk about it will not make it more painful. It is already on their minds. Some people are feeling fatigued from the adrenaline-laced pace that comes with a sudden change and have not taken the time they need to process. Inviting and giving them space to talk will help them to grieve. Or, if you yourself are struggling, be open to beginning the conversation.

Don’t be surprised if it takes days or weeks for people to feel the loss. Social media has given us tools to deflect pain with humor. People may feel pressure to put on a happy face, especially for young people in their homes. Make sure people know you are available to talk whenever they need. And, make sure you are finding meaningful connection as well.

Don’t dismiss ambiguous loss as less important. The fact that there will be other moments, jobs and relationships in the future does not replace the one that were lost. We might be tempted to diminish the importance of these events and connections because they seem insignificant in the face of more serious concerns. But ambiguous loss is loss. What people are feeling is real and valid, and it deserves a time of mourning.

Remember your identity is in your Baptism and not in what you do. We are an action-, production-, success-focused society. When opportunities to be productive or to work are lost, we can struggle to know who we are. Beyond anything we do, we are God’s beloved children. Focusing on our baptismal identity can help bring stability as people mourn the loss or suspension of key vocations in their lives.

Be understanding as people experience the impacts of loss without knowing exactly why. With ambiguous loss, people may find that they feel strong emotions or exhibit negative behaviors, but don’t know why. Help them by affirming how they feel and talking through healthy ways to grieve. This may be a time that requires extra warmth and grace.

For those who have suffered an unconventional loss, we can find different ways to show support as they work through grief. We will find that it is not the sandwich recipe but the love of Jesus working in and through us that brings comfort in grief. As a congregational community, we can be loving, constant and Christ-centered examples of how to manage difficult times. We can care for people experiencing a variety of these ambiguous losses. In all things, let God draw us all closer to Him, especially in times of loss and grief.

Coronavirus resources

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Concordia Plan Services, Concordia Publishing House and other LCMS entities have compiled resources to assist congregations, schools, church workers and members during the coronavirus pandemic.