Two long-standing members of our congregation have died in recent weeks. Ron Deputy died on May 5 at his home—in his sleep, not from COVID-19, so far as anyone knows. Henry Brenneman died on May16 from complications due to COVID-19. Henry also had underlying health conditions that made him more vulnerable to the virus once infected. For both Ron and Henry, there was only a private graveside service. Their respective families still hope for memorial services and celebrations of life later on, if possible—once the virus is more under control. But no one knows when that might be.
So how do families and friends grieve loved ones when funerals are not an option? It’s more than just a question; it’s a painful reality in the pit of people’s stomachs since funerals and memorial services are such an important part of grieving and saying good-bye. COVID-19 has upended our lives in all sorts of way, but one particularly difficult change is its impact on the way we mourn the loss of loved ones. The spread of the virus and the associated social distancing that comes with it has made it impossible for family and friends to grieve the death of their loved ones with traditional funerals, family gatherings, and celebrations of life. These gatherings provide bereaved people an outpouring of love and support in the form of hugs, shared meals, flower deliveries, help with childcare, a variety of social gatherings, and “last rites”—committals, prayers, and expressions of faith that help us to lean into the goodness and faithfulness of God, even in the face of death.
During this pandemic, however, much of these traditional support structures have been taken away. It leaves many people without the very things they need most for support in times of grief. In this season of delayed funerals and postponed celebration of life services, mental health therapists are concerned about the long-term effects of delayed grief. When grief is delayed, there’s a tendency to hold it in and to internalize it…which usually means it’s not being processed well. Finding ways to go through the grieving process and saying goodbye to loved ones within the limits of social distancing is a new challenge on top of the isolation many are already experiencing.
It’s important to acknowledge the pain of grief as normal. And even if we cannot support each other in person, we can still reach out to others by phone, email, texting, and a variety of video platforms (like Zoom or Duo or Facetime). One of the best things for grief work is to connect with others, share memories, tell stories, and allow ourselves to have a good cry. Even Jesus wept openly at the death of his friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:31-36). His in-person support for Mary and Martha was exactly what they needed. While we are currently limited in the amount of in-person support we can give or receive, most of us have all sorts of technology available to help us talk about our feelings with others—rather than keeping them all bottled up. These virtual connections are not perfect, but they are better than not connecting at all. And if you aren’t the one grieving, perhaps you can be the listening ear that someone else needs. Go ahead, reach out; be a virtual supporter in someone else’s time of need.
Phil Kanagy, pastor
May 20, 2020