When Normal Disappears: Five Ways Parents Can Cope with the Pandemic’s Uncertainty

When quarantine began in March, our family hunkered down for what we hoped would be a temporary setback. We conserved our remaining paper towels and ate meals with rationed items from the grocery store. We transitioned to online church and schooling and attempted to stay connected. Through it all, our family clung to the hope of “when this is over.” When this is over, we’d return to church and youth group again. When this is over, we’d play team sports again. When this is over, we’d return to normal life.

For our family, the longing for a return to normal was already strong. Normal life had disappeared eight months before the COVID-19 pandemic began when my husband died suddenly in a tragic hiking accident. Familiar church and school rhythms had suffered disruption from grief, and relationships had become awkward and strained. We discovered that life after loss was radically different; nothing felt normal anymore.

The pandemic’s arrival only exacerbated the uncertainty my four children and I felt as we struggled to navigate our lives after loss. In our little world that already had come unraveled by death, a global pandemic felt more than a little ironic. Even the world outside our doors seemed to be falling apart. Could life really get any harder?

However, as the months of stay at home orders passed by, I began to see that our eight months of grief prior had actually prepared us relatively well for the pandemic. Loneliness? We knew that struggle. Disconnectedness from familiar rhythms? We’d experienced that too. My children and I knew what it felt like to mourn the loss of normalcy; life had enrolled us in a crash course in survival skills already. Maybe we could use what we’d learned about grief to help us survive this pandemic too.

Over the last year, I’ve learned that we can’t just soldier on when life feels unbearably hard. When normal life disappears, we need a better plan. It comes as no surprise that Scripture offers wisdom as we navigate our lives in the midst of life’s uncertainties. Consider these five ways you and your children can grieve your losses in the pandemic, root yourselves in this present moment, and find hope for whatever tomorrow brings.

1. Give yourself permission to feel sad about what you’ve lost.
We often think that we need to put on a brave face when life gets tough. Perhaps we think that feeling sad about what we’ve lost means that we don’t have much faith, that we don’t trust God to take care of us. When normal disappears, it is healthy and natural to grieve that loss. Israel sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept when they remembered Zion (Psalm 137:1). It’s okay for you to grieve your losses too.

Normalize pandemic grief in your home by offering your child permission to feel sad. Whether your child mourns the loss of an in-person school classroom or the freedom to hang out at the skate park after school, those losses are real and deserve acknowledgement. God invites us to unburden ourselves before him, and the first step is admitting we are carrying something heavy.

2. Talk about your feelings.
The loss of normalcy during the pandemic has provoked myriad emotions. One day, your child might feel fine staying home and online schooling. Another day, the experience might send him into despondency. It can be hard to know how to respond as a parent. Rather than treat your child’s emotional changes like a rollercoaster ride in need of a strong brake, help him learn to experience these different emotions in healthy ways. Teach him to talk about his feelings.

Feelings, in and of themselves, aren’t good or bad. It’s what we do with them that counts. We can be angry about COVID-19 restrictions and regulations and sin not (Ephesians 4:26). We can flood our beds with weeping and not abandon God (Psalm 6:6). As your child expresses his feelings about the disappearance of his normal life, he may be surprised to find he feels more peaceful, maybe even empowered to do something about his situation.

3. Take care of your body.
The apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:29 that every person nourishes and cherishes his body. But when we’re grieving, caring for our physical needs can be an easy thing to skip. When we haven’t slept well, we’re short on patience in our human relationships. When we’re not tending to our bodies, our relationships with God can also become strained. It’s all connected. Our faith isn’t just cerebral. It is deeply physical too.

Normal rhythms of school lunches and soccer practice have disappeared with the pandemic, but your child’s body doesn’t need to bear the cost. Instead, help her to develop new rhythms that will honor her body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. Encourage your student to walk the dog around the block before sitting down to study, eat a healthy snack instead of nosh on shelf-stable munchies, or hit the sack a little early — even if she can show up in her pajama pants for online school the next morning. Model this wholistic attitude toward the spiritual life and show your child how taking care of her body actually makes it easier to endure the present moment, however difficult.

4. Practice living in the present.
When our bodies and hearts are well cared for, we’re better prepared to meet the challenges that face us every day. If we’re honest, we don’t know when normal life will return. As we help our children grieve the past and look to the future, we do this best by encouraging them to live fully in the present moment and offer the unknown future to God.

Rather than encouraging your child with “someday we’ll get back to normal,” invite your child to live fully in the now. Invite him to use meditation, breath prayers, and open conversation to let go of the coming school year’s plans and to embrace God’s plans for his tomorrows. In the face of pandemic grief, we can still live with contentment and joy. Like the weaned child who rests in his mother’s arms, we can release our longings for the past and our uncertainty of the future and find God’s peace now (Psalm 131:2).

5. Redefine normal.
When COVID-19 ground our lives to a halt back in the spring, we hoped we’d return to what we had before. We wanted “normal” — whatever that meant. But if there’s anything grief teaches us, it is that loss reorients our priorities. If we listen, grief tells us what is really important. And, to our surprise, rarely are the important things markers of what the world considers a “normal” life.

The apostle Paul tells us that struggles produce endurance, endurance produces hope, and hope doesn’t disappoint. This flowchart doesn’t reflect a “when this is over” perspective. Instead, Paul encourages us to redefine normal. Normal isn’t going back to the way things were. Normal is growth. Normal is releasing our belief that “the way things were” is the model of what is best. Normal is learning from our losses, allowing our pandemic grief to shape us in wisdom and the fruits of the Spirit. As we teach our children to redefine normal in God’s terms, not ours, we offer them real, tangible hope, not just in this season of pandemic but for the rest of their lives.

Clarissa Moll (MA, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is author of Beyond the Darkness: A Gentle Guide to Living with Grief and Thriving after Loss. She is the host of Christianity Today’s “Surprised by Grief” podcast, and her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, RELEVANT, Modern Loss and more. Clarissa engages with readers on Instagram (@mollclarissa) and at her website (www.clarissamoll.com) where she offers a monthly newsletter of support and encouragement for people experiencing bereavement.

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