Pictured: Sammie Wuensche. Photo illustration by Anastasia Condolon
When one first learns a loved one has died, it can feel overwhelming, perhaps unforeseen — like getting lost in a tidal wave.
One might be out in the ocean for a while feeling disoriented and confused. Over time, memories of the loved one come back, sometimes unexpectedly — even when the water appears to be calm. As time continues on, the waves can become almost sweet, gentle reminders of the beloved.
This is one way Connie Horton, vice president for Student Affairs, said she views grief after her father died in 2015. Although she still feels sad, she said there is a sweetness when something reminds her of her father.
“Every time there’s a Red-tailed Hawk that goes by, I can almost hear his voice saying, ‘I think that’s a Red-tailed Hawk,’ and then getting the binoculars,” Horton said. “I’m grateful that he taught me to appreciate nature and to pay attention, and it becomes like this reflective moment versus this wave that knocks me over.”
Each person’s experience with grief does not look the same. One’s cultural and religious background plays a significant role in the grieving process. COVID-19 has also forced many individuals to experience loss differently.
The psychology of grief
Some understand the mourning process through the Kübler-Ross model, also known as the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Elizabeth Mancuso, Psychology professor and clinical psychologist, said she thinks the model gives people a language to understand and normalize grief.
People do not often experience the different “stages” in a linear or orderly fashion, Mancuso said. Instead, people vacillate between them.
“It’s going to look different for everyone,” Mancuso said. “Whatever it looks like for you is normal, and it’s good, and it’s part of the grieving process.”
Horton, a psychologist and former director of the Pepperdine Counseling Center, said many factors affect how a person responds psychologically to the loss of a loved one including the nature and timing of the death, the nature of the relationship with the loved one, how one is doing overall before the death and their personality and social support.
Horton said for some, the grieving process can be “complicated,” especially if the relationship between an individual and their loved one was tense.
Senior Ani Harutyunyan said she and her family are still in shock and struggling to accept that her grandfather died unexpectedly because of how strong and healthy he was. The true cause of his death is still not entirely known.
It all began when Harutyunyan’s grandmother contracted COVID-19 and suffered from the symptoms. Harutyunyan said she thinks it affected her grandpa — who did not get the virus himself — to see his wife of 52 years in pain. Harutyunyan noticed that he was not acting like his usual, enthusiastic self.
On Jan. 6, Harutyunyan’s grandpa collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. Harutyunyan said the hospital’s regulations did not allow the family to go into the ICU to see him, so they would try to FaceTime him as much as they could, even though he couldn’t verbally respond because he was on life support.
Harutyunyan said she and her family believe the hospital did not tell them the truth about what was going on with her grandpa’s condition.
“We don’t know what was happening,” Harutyunyan said. “Since he stepped foot into the hospital, everything has been a blur for us, and I think that’s what makes it harder for us to cope sometimes — just thinking about how sudden everything was and how we knew nothing.”
Harutyunyan and her aunt eventually fought with the hospital to honor his wishes to die peacefully in his own home surrounded by family. When they brought him home, Harutyunan spent three days next to her grandpa, holding his hand and speaking to him until someone arrived to pull the plug.
Sophomore Sammie Wuensche lost her grandfather due to COVID-19 near the end of November.
Wuensche said before her “popo” died, the hospital let Wuensche’s grandma see him in person, and all of their grandchildren called her phone to say their final goodbyes.
“It must have been so hard because he had to do it alone,” Wuensche said. “They let my grandma in at the very end, and she had to go in a full hazmat suit, and so it wasn’t even like she was really there, so he was literally doing it by himself.”
Susan Giboney, retired Pepperdine professor of Education and certified family life educator, lost her husband of 36 years Dec. 6, 1996. Terry Giboney was only 57 when he died of colon cancer. Both educators, she and Terry would teach and counsel couples and parents together.
Giboney and her family were shocked when they first heard the diagnosis, since Terry was such a healthy person. Giboney said preparing for Terry’s death was extremely painful, and she especially hated that God was breaking up her team.
“I never particularly ‘felt sorry for myself,’ except I was so sorry that I had to live life without him,” Giboney said.
Life circumstances at the time of a death can also affect the grieving process, Horton said. Perhaps a person had just lost their job or was put on probation at school, or perhaps the person had experienced other recent deaths of people close to them. The stress can then become cumulative.
Wuensche lost three grandparents in the span of 14 months and said even though this past year has been really difficult for her and her family, they have become closer through it all.
Horton said the loss of a loved one can feel like a “wind blowing you far over,” and social support, positive self-talk and self-care — as well as other meaningful, practical processes — can help one start to find their way back.
Horton encourages those grieving to avoid telling themselves they’re supposed to be feeling a certain way or supposed to be at a certain “stage” in their grieving process.
Grief is already a heavy brick to carry, Horton said, and adding the weight of frustration, impatience or guilt over the speed or means of processing grief makes that already substantial burden even heavier.
How religion affects the grieving process
University Chaplain Sara Barton said in a community as large as Pepperdine, there is always someone going through grief. The Pepperdine community in particular has been in a state of grief since the Woolsey Fire and the loss of Alaina Housley in Fall 2018.
Barton said even though Pepperdine is a Christian university, multifaith understanding is important in her role. Barton emphasizes honoring the individual’s faith practices when memorializing them and serving the individual’s friends and family.
When Barton ministers to Christians in mourning, she emphasizes that Jesus invites people to grieve.
“The Bible says that Jesus was a man of sorrows, and He was acquainted with grief; He wept for others,” Barton said. “And this is also important: He even wept for His own pain in the Garden of Gethsemane, and He cried out in lament on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ That is a call of grief.”
One of the common ways people cope is by relying on their faith. Mancuso said religious coping can have a positive or negative impact on a person.
Mancuso said one positive way to religiously cope is called benevolent religious reappraisal, which is when someone sees a situation in a new, more positive light because of their faith. For example, when someone loses a loved one, they might believe that through their pain they have gained a deeper relationship with God or God has made them stronger.
“Religious surrender — turning it over to God, doing what you can to put it in God’s hands, rather than to try to take control of that situation yourself — might actually be a very adaptive way of coping in that situation, a way of coming to peace,” Mancuso said.
Giboney said a blindly optimistic way of looking at life did not drive her faith in God, but rather a strength beyond herself.
“I could yell and scream at the Lord and He could take it; He understood that,” Giboney said.
Negative religious coping, also called spiritual struggle, is religious coping that can be harmful to the individual, Mancuso said. For example, a person might believe that God took away a person from their life as punishment for something they did.
“You can imagine how difficult or how stressful that belief is for someone,” Mancuso said. “That’s a negative way that people might cope with the grief experience or with their loss.”
It is important for Christian worship services to intentionally make space for grief and lament, Barton said. She thinks the Psalms in particular can guide church communities in fostering a place for all experiences of human life, including sadness, anger, fear, frustration and joy.
“We should realize that pretty much every time we ever gather, for any worship gathering, there are people present who are grieving,” Barton said.
The significance of mourning rituals
Mancuso said another part of religious coping is engaging in symbolic rituals that allow people to say goodbye to the dead.
Part of the psychological significance of engaging in these rituals is that they offer an experience that helps people think about the grieving process differently and connect with others.
In addition to a private family burial service, Giboney said they also had a memorial service at Pepperdine’s Firestone Fieldhouse where about 1,000 people attended.
“My husband said he wanted a celebration of life,” Giboney said. “And he said, Don’t drag the songs!’ He was a very funny man, but he wanted it to be a celebration and for people to be encouraged.”
Jews will tear their clothes when they hear of the loss of a close relative and engage in a seven-day mourning period called “shiva.” Schwarzberg said this is typically when the mourners, or close relatives, gather together in one home and welcome visitors.
“Our communities have tremendous emphasis around ensuring that the mourners are stable and are taken care of, providing meals for them, and, of course, people visiting them,” Schwarzberg said. “This is some of the great work that synagogues and our community organizations do. It’s really quite beautiful.”
How the COVID-19 pandemic altered grief
Barton wrote a Christianity Today article about how her personal grief over the loss of her mom was “deferred” when the Pepperdine community faced a mass shooting and the Woolsey wildfire two weeks after her mom died.
“Everything had changed because our whole community was now grieving, and my personal grief was put on hold as I cared for other people,” Barton said. “I think right now, a lot of people are having that experience — their grief is on hold in an unprecedented way.”
Barton said it seems the whole world is grieving because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What is already a lonely journey is even more lonely,” Barton said. “Because many people haven’t been able to be with their loved ones, even in their last minutes of life due to hospital restrictions, and they haven’t been able to gather and mourn with family and with communities of faith.”
Harutyunyan said her family wanted her grandfather’s body to be at rest as soon as possible, but there was a long wait at the funeral home. They eventually held the funeral service outdoors March 18. Guests wore masks and socially distanced.
Mancuso said for many people, the inability to grieve or lean on the support of others in ways they expected can increase the feeling of pain.
“People feel like they’re being robbed twice,” Mancuso said. “They’re being robbed of their loved one, they have that loss, but then it’s a double loss because they can’t come together with others and grieve the way they normally would.”
People have been trying to simulate online or in contactless ways the physical support or presence they would normally give to the bereaved through delivering food and attending memorial services on Zoom. Mancuso said while these things are still meaningful, it’s not the same as being physically present with one another.
Barton said that although streaming funeral services is not the same, she has appreciated the creative ways people have mourned their loved ones. One friend’s family honored his mother by making Chinese dumplings. Another friend lost her husband and created an art exhibit of her spouse’s clothes. A group of friends planted a tree for a widow in her front yard in memory of her husband.
She and her family could not have in-person visitations due to COVID-19 guidelines, so they did a drive-by visitation.
“Everybody knew my Popo,” Wuensche said. “Literally the entire town drove by, and it was all people 60 and older — just through the car — telling my grandma how sorry they were and how much they loved him.”
Wuensche said they later held a funeral where she sang hymns and played guitar, and they livestreamed it so others could watch from home.
Both Barton and Wuensche said that as things reopen, it’s natural that people will want to celebrate, but that they should also remember some are still grieving.
The legacy loved ones leave behind
Horton said the objects she received when her grandma and dad died have helped remind her of memories with them. She has her dad’s binoculars, which he would use to appreciate animals and nature, as well as her grandma’s mixing bowl from when they used to bake apple pies together when Horton was young.
People knew Horton’s grandpa, who also died, to be incredibly generous with his family and people around him, and Horton said he inspires her to go the extra mile like he did.
“I was blessed by his generosity, so how will I bless others?” Horton said. “Blessing for a blessing kind of idea. How will I pay it forward?”
Giboney said her husband’s legacy continues to bless her children, her grandchildren and many others who were touched by his life.
A couple weeks before he died, Terry told Giboney he left her a gift for their anniversary, which fell about four days after his death. He had given her a beautiful ring along with a note that read, “It sparkles like our marriage.”
Giboney also gathered all of the poems Terry wrote her throughout their relationship into a book, titling it “Love Letters in the Sand,” in memory of one of their first dates where they saw a movie with the same title.
Terry wrote a statement of his faith before he died, which Giboney keeps framed beside her bed. Giboney said it still comforts her to read it.
Giboney also lives out her husband’s legacy by continuing to teach the premarital class they taught together and be a part of the missions committee at their church, as she and Terry had served as missionaries together in Japan.
Harutyunyan said her grandpa was a hardworking man who brought his family from Armenia to America. Harutyunyan, her brother and her cousins all adopted their grandpa’s work ethic and never-give-up attitude.
“I’m working to be a better version of myself and trying to adapt these characteristics that my grandpa had,” Harutyunyan said. “Almost as if to try to fill the shoes that he left behind, someone who takes care of other people when they need it, be the caregiver and the one in charge, the one people can rely on.”
Harutyunyan is studying psychology and pre-med, and she said she looks forward to the day she becomes a doctor and has her last name — her grandpa’s name — sewn onto her white lab coat.
Wuensche’s grandfather immigrated to the United States from Germany. Wuensche said her grandpa had such genuine love for other people and was gifted in making others feel heard and valued.
“In his physical absence, I’ve definitely been paying more attention to how I can reflect his spirit in that way, and how I want to make people feel welcomed and be a person that fosters community because that was something that he was so actively engaged in every day,” Wuensche said.
Wuensche said what she has found comforting through this time is knowing that “this too shall pass,” even though that doesn’t mean the grieving process is going to be easy.
“The legacies of people that we love cannot be diminished by the power of a pandemic,” Wuensche said. “The strengths of people’s spirits are so much stronger than the grievances we experienced as a result of the sufferings of this world. And that’s just a truth to hold on to, regardless of religion, that this is a season, and it’s a very hard season, but seasons change and so do hearts in their processing of grief.”
Resources for support in the grieving process:
- Pepperdine Counseling Center
- Group Counseling
- Individual Counseling
- Pepperdine Office of the Chaplain
- Spiritual Mentoring Program
Email Emily Shaw: Emily.firstname.lastname@example.org