Jenni Osborn

This article first appeared in the Premier Youth and Children’s Work Magazine Schools Work in June 2020

Banksy Heart Balloon

Grief in Times of Covid 19

At the time of writing we have had one of the warmest springtime of recent years, I am looking out of an open patio door enjoying the sunshine and the feeling of warmth. It has also been one of the strangest, most unsettling spring times I can remember. Different to other difficult years because of the sheer scale of the issue. So many words have been used to describe the current period, it can start to feel rather overly dramatic until you realise that this really does impact every single person on this planet in some way or another. This is not just unsettling for a handful of people, or even just something happening in one corner of the world; this is worldwide and one of the biggest challenges faced by global leaders in the last century.  

At the start of the UK ‘lockdown’ period you may, like me, have had plans for the ‘free’ time this was going to give us. Free from social obligations, the potential for lower expectations from work with meetings being moved online, freeing up the time one might have had to travel to and fro, no church on Sundays or any other point in the week, no youth clubs, school assemblies, classes or lunch clubs to run, what a whole lot of time we suddenly had. Time to do all manner of things! 

What we were unaware of at that point was just how much of an impact this sudden change would have and how much emotion there would be to process. 

If you could go back to February of this year and give your past self some advice for the future without specifying the exact problem, how would you frame it? One answer I heard to this question was ‘invest in Zoom’, within days of the shutting down of schools and business premises, the stopping of flights and all unnecessary travel, Zoom meetings became the new normal, it’s like being in the same room! Fast forward a few weeks and Zoom fatigue is spreading, we realise that watching friends, family, or colleagues on a screen is not at all the same as being in the same room. It’s better than not seeing anyone other than the cat/dog or your immediate family but it’s definitely not the same.  

The range of responses from schools has been wide, some have set work and then checked in every now and then, some have gone to virtual classrooms (quickly discovering that Zoom was highly vulnerable to cyber-attack and so having to move to other virtual conference technology or putting extra security measures in place), some teachers seem to expect students to keep up with the same pace of work as in the classroom and others saying just do what you can.  

We are all experiencing grief. Harvard Business Review asked David Kessler, co-author of On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss, about current circumstances and he responded by confirming we are all feeling a number of griefs: loss of normalcy; fear of economic toll; loss of connection; and anticipatory grief, which is the knowing the change and loss is coming but being powerless to avoid it. He said “We are all grieving on a micro and a macro level” (from: Grief at events long planned but not happening, grief at losing casual and intentional physical contact with friends, family and work colleagues, grief at losing people, many thousands of people across the UK but also close at hand: a friend of a friend, a member of your church community, a close family member. It’s horrifying, and grief, anger and a whole range of other emotions are a perfectly appropriate response.  

As we live through this time of deep unfathomable uncertainty we are confronted by an unassailable truth that in fact is as old as time, a truth that our ancient ancestors knew only too plainly: no-one knows what the future will hold. We cannot predict with any certainty what the next 6 weeks, 6 months, 12 months will be like. Will there be any summer camps or festivals this year? When will schools reopen? Will work ever be the same again? Will churches reconvene as before on a Sunday morning & a Tuesday evening?  

I hope not. 

I hope fervently that all of us will emerge from this pandemic with a profound sense that we should not simply return to normal. I hope that when we do begin to gather in the same physical spaces again we will do so to effect change, to re-evaluate what we were doing before lockdown and what we have done since physical distancing measures have kept us out of a shared space, and to radically rethink our approach to life, in our work, in our worship and in our contact with young people and children. 

We need to ask ourselves questions, to take stock, to pause before rushing back to everything we were doing. Questions like, what difference are we trying to make? Are we making that difference? Who have we seen or not seen since we were last in school? What are schools likely to ask us to do once they go back? 

The answer to that last one is likely to be therapeutic. In the world of education in the UK, hundreds of thousands of pupils and staff had their worlds turned upside down with very little notice. Expectations on both have been extraordinary and everyone will have dealt with it differently. There will be shared experiences, we have all been in the same storm. But some have experienced this from the safety of their own homes with loved ones who all get along well; others will have felt trapped in a home that contains people they don’t want to spend time with and doesn’t feel safe; still others have not been in reasonable accommodation; and still others have had no home, no loved ones or even safe adults. 

We need to make sure that our schools work is up to the job of caring for the most vulnerable, for empowering the overlooked, for drawing in the outcast and welcoming all to the table we have set out.  

What might that look like in your context?