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Grieving, mourning, finding hope after COVID-19

Acknowledging our losses is the first step to rebuilding hope

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

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Coffee brewed, toasters popped and crunchy flakes of bran poured into cereal bowls. This ordinary start to what would hopefully be a much-needed ordinary day in a coronavirus-beaten-down world was short-lived. Along with the breakfast eggs, the front page of the May 24th New York Times served a sobering headline: The United States was approaching a grim milestone of nearly 100,000 COVID-19-related deaths.

The iconic paper, which has had its share of monumental headlines since first publishing in 1851, proceeded to name the nation’s palpable grief — literally — publishing a litany of 1,000 names of those who had died from the virus. A brief descriptor capturing the essence of their lives accompanied each name: Loved Jesus, Elvis, Dr Pepper and her family. Enjoyed trying her luck in casinos. Go-to person for everybody.

The front page was an invitation to pause and acknowledge the extent of loss in the nation. It also underscored the heavy reality that, because of the physical distancing requirements to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the ability to find solace in traditional rites of mourning was gone. How was one to grieve without funeral home calling hours, in-sanctuary worship services and the fellowship hall receptions that often followed — where stories and hugs mingle with egg salad sandwiches and homemade tea breads? Could video memorial services, smaller graveside committals or a newspaper’s front-page memorial replace the healing balm of touch and togetherness?

When the Rev. Nibs Stroupe, an honorably retired member of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, was called to officiate a funeral at the height of the pandemic, he said that feeling of a “gaping hole” was palpable by the lack of physical contact with those who were mourning. He also admits that he hadn’t been reminded “in a long time” of the pressure to deliver the hope that can be found in God’s Word as he was at that funeral. Hope was still found, even in spite of the lack of physical contact, he says.

“I could not sing the body electric, to use the poet Walt Whitman’s powerful phrase, but I felt it,” said Stroupe.

In the Presbytery of New York City, an area that has been a hotbed for the coronavirus, the need to collectively grieve has been important for pastors and congregations, says the Rev. Robert Foltz-Morrison, executive presbyter.

Foltz-Morrison says that online Zoom or phone meetings with pastors always include a time to acknowledge the losses in congregations and the communities they serve. He added that a space to grieve together was created by The Interfaith Center, which worked with Lincoln Center to produce online services called a “Memorial for All of Us.”

Running anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes long, the services aired consecutive Sundays in May and featured acclaimed artists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis. As the artist of the night performed, names of those who died from COVID-19-related illnesses were memorialized.

Naming the ‘living losses’

Creating ways to grieve, when being physically together is not an option, has been just one pandemic story. There’s another story unfolding. That is how congregations will need to recognize and properly grieve what are known as “living losses” — the losses of everyday routines, someday dreams and milestone moments that the coronavirus has stolen from many.

Church door with sign that says "First Presbyterian Church is closed until Thursday, April 9. Please join us for services on Maundy Thursday, 5:30pm, April 9"

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“Our lives have been turned upside down with fear and loneliness, and grief over the inequality COVID-19 is bringing out, with no clear direction forward. We miss our grandkids, we mourn the loss of graduation, we’ve lost our jobs, our rhythms have been disrupted. It’s all hard, and it all represents loss,” said the Rev. Renn Serna, senior pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Fresno, California.

Serna says it is important for these losses to be processed, to be shared collectively, especially in congregations, who are grieving the loss of beloved church traditions as virtual worship and meetings replace in-person gatherings.

“Grief must be expressed, otherwise it festers and eats away at us,” Serna said.

Grief, though, is not often expressed easily among congregations. “The church is where we should most fully express grief, but often we tell our parishioners (consciously or not) that it’s not OK to be sad, because that means we aren’t good enough Christians or we don’t trust God enough,” Serna said. “And yet, Jesus grieved, and we have so much to grieve now.”

Serna has found that the most effective way to help her congregation process grief is to name the pain that she herself is feeling — like openly sharing how social isolation had made caring for her son more difficult or talking freely about the anxiety that kept her up many nights in the pandemic. By naming her struggles, fears and losses, she has cleared the way for others to safely share their grief as well, she says. The pastor is also incorporating prayers of lament into the weekly worship service, lifting examples of how grief is expressed in the Bible and inviting members to give testimonies of how their lives have changed because of COVID-19.

“We try to weave aspects of grief work into everything that we are doing right now, constantly naming the pain and pointing to places where we see God’s love breaking through,” Serna said, adding, “Grief isn’t easy, and it isn’t quick.”

Compounded grief

The process of moving from night’s mourning to morning’s joy as the psalmist promises becomes harder to do when COVID-19-related grief gets layered on top of the unresolved grief from long-struggling congregations.

According to Trace Haythorn, executive director/CEO of the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education in Atlanta, Presbyterians — who had long prided themselves as having one of their own, the Rev. John Witherspoon, to sign the Declaration of Independence — were already grieving a diminishing denomination before the pandemic struck.

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“Institutional preservation is in fact a mode of grief,” said Haythorn, adding that this grief is going to be compounded by the new ways of being the church that are emerging.

“The grief is going to come from those who have built these institutions, from those who have prided themselves on being a pivotal part in getting the church library established or building the new church addition,” he said. “But the pandemic has shown us that the way we had lived is not sustainable.”

Mingling with the grief from the older generation of what appears to be an unsustainable institutional model of church is the younger generation’s feeling of loss of certainty of the future. “We have older members mourning all that they had toiled and built, and then you have the younger generation struggling with what is going to emerge, wondering what will be,” said Haythorn.

In all this ambiguity, one thing is for sure: Now is not the time to rush anything — the grieving process, the opening of churches, the return to traditional worship, the solving of problems, etc.

“We were already in a moment of grieving before the pandemic, and we didn’t take time then to pause and ask what we needed to be as a church. And now that grief is being compounded,” said Haythorn. “Whether we like to or not, we need to name the grief. We need to own it because that grief will inform our decisions.”

Working through that grief, though, will not necessarily be an academic exercise. “We’re not going to think ourselves out of it,” said Haythorn. Rather, he says that working through the grief will involve noticing how your body is reacting to the losses and to take note of whom you are processing the grief with.

“My fear is if that we don’t take this moment now to grieve well, the grief will just escalate, and it will come out in anger and will not move us forward,” said Haythorn.

Donna Miller agrees with Haythorn. Miller, who serves as associate for the PC(USA)’s Mental Health Ministry, coordinating the churchwide “Comfort My People” mental health initiative adopted by the 223rd General Assembly (2018) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), says it’s important for congregations to treat one another with compassion and grace, which means letting go of trying to get things right.

“We are bound to make mistakes, get things wrong along the way. We cannot expect perfection from ourselves or anyone else — ever, but especially now,” said Miller.

It is also important for congregations to remember that the grieving process is different for everybody. “Everyone will be in a different place. We have to be understanding and nonjudgmental,” she said. “We have to make sure no one gets left behind, alone with their loss and grief.”

If there’s a silver lining in this time of loss, Miller says it would be that more people are talking about the impact the pandemic has had on mental health, and that these conversations are raising much-needed awareness on the topic. Miller says that pre-pandemic studies showed that about half of Americans will have a diagnosed mental health condition sometime in their lives. “And that was before the pandemic. Hopefully, this pandemic has made mental health less stigmatized in the churches,” she said.

A grief that heals

While a pervasive grief has swept over congregations with many named and yet-to-be-named losses, there’s always hope.

“I’ve been hearing three postures among pastors: ‘Return to Egypt’ (re-set to what we were doing), ‘Live in the Wilderness for Now’ (adapt and learn from this new environment), and ‘Head to the New Land’ (becoming a different people and church),” said Foltz-Morrison. “As Reformed churches, we know we are called in every generation to reform ourselves, following the voice of God’s Spirit. This pandemic has opened such a window in time to see or ignore a kairos moment.”

For Serna, COVID-19 has “forced our church to take a huge step forward in digital ministry, which we never seemed to find the time to prioritize previously.”

“There is incredible permission to adapt and change during a crisis: For too long we’ve been focusing our attention on one hour on Sunday morning, when our people need God 24 / 7,” she said. Before any change, though, there needs to be a time to mourn. “If we don’t mourn well, we will never be able to take that first tentative step forward,” Serna said.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.

Grieving Together

Tips and suggestions

Jason Whitehead, a coach and spiritual director for Mosaic Insight Counseling and Coaching in Denver, offers the following ideas for how congregations can grieve and process loss together when traditional rituals such as group vigils and hymn sings cannot be held.

  • Create a time in worship for people to express their grief and sense of loss.
  • Create a Facebook grief wall where people can write about something they miss.
  • Create an Instagram or Pinterest wall where people can post a picture that describes their feelings or sense of grief or loss.
  • Develop a virtual support group.
  • Have leadership write letters of gratitude to people in the congregation who have identified that they are struggling at this time.
  • Create a community or congregational scrapbook that documents this point in the history of the church. Encourage people to be honest about the things they are grateful for and the challenges they face.
  • Talk about the future with honesty and vulnerability, acknowledging the pain of what we’ve lost and the possibility of what comes next.
  • Understand when your own grief is clouding your ability to connect with others, and take some time apart when needed.
  • Take your time. Be together during this time of grief and loss. Most experts say that we should not make important decisions within six months of a major loss.
  • When the grief becomes too much, get professional help.

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