Disrupted grief comes calling at churches

June 23, 2021 by Greg Allen-Pickett

I received a call that no pastor wants to receive on April 17, 2020. “We lost her,” my church member said over the phone through his tears. My mind started spinning. How are we going to handle this, I asked myself. It was the first confirmed COVID-19 death in our four-county region. What are we going to do?

One month earlier, on March 16, our session called an emergency meeting and voted to suspend all in-person worship and to close our building to all but essential staff. How do I comfort a family and also tell them that we cannot hold a funeral or a reception for their loved one? How do I provide pastoral care while also providing for the health and safety of my church members, my community, my family, and myself?

This is the conundrum that thousands of pastors have faced in the last 14 months, and it’s not over yet; for many of us, there are still restrictions and precautions in place, and COVID-19 is still impacting our daily lives.

Our grief processes have been fundamentally disrupted over the last year. For the family, the grieving process might start when I meet with them to plan the funeral. I try to sit down with the families and ask them questions that will lead to them sharing memories about their loved one with me. The grief begins to come out as we plan details like picking their favorite hymns and scriptures or the sharing of a poem that they want read at the service. We sit together, pray together, cry together, and attempt to plan a service that will honor the life of their loved one and reflect the hope we have in the resurrection.

For many members of the extended family and the larger community, their grief process may begin at the funeral or the memorial service. The death becomes real when they are confronted with a casket, an urn, or even a portrait adorned with vases of flowers. Singing cherished hymns, listening to familiar passages of scripture or hearing eulogies can help folks begin to process their grief at the service.

Then there is the reception following the funeral. For so many, that is where the work of grief really begins. Our funeral luncheons in Central Nebraska are a case study in grief and hospitality, sorrow and joy. The homemade salads and desserts that begin to arrive at the church on the day of a funeral are physical manifestations grief and love, almost sacramental in nature. Church members share with me that as they boil the eggs for the deviled eggs, or mix the Jello for the salad, they reflect on the memories of the deceased, or offer prayers for the mourning family. The counters and refrigerator in the church kitchen fill up with dishes prepared with kindness, compassion, and empathetic love. While the funeral goes on in the sanctuary, our deacons are hard at work setting tables, brewing coffee and iced tea, and laying out the feast with incredible care.

Once we finish the funeral or memorial service and people move from the sanctuary of the church into the fellowship hall, there is a shift in the mood. The formality of the church service is over, and the beloved memories begin to emerge. People start sharing stories, and tears mingle with laughter as the iced tea and coffee are served, and plates are filled with these lovingly prepared dishes. The funeral reception is often the place where people begin to process their grief as they share with one another.

All of these moments, opportunities, and rituals for processing grief have been fundamentally altered due to this pandemic, and we are going to feel the impact of disrupted grief processes for years to come. Grief is a tricky thing to begin with, volumes and volumes of books have been written on it. Given what we have experienced in the last year, pastors need to be particularly attentive to the grief that is being experienced by families who lost a loved one and have had their grief disrupted due to the pandemic.

And pastors need to be attentive to their own grief, whether they experienced a personal loss in the last year, or are accompanying members of their community who experienced loss; pastors have also had many of our tools for processing grief profoundly disrupted or altered in the past year.

I want to close this reflection with something that has helped me in the midst of all of this. It is the recognition that we can simultaneously hold sorrow and joy. As we begin to process our grief in new ways, and also walk with those who are still grieving because of the disruptions we have had in our grief rituals over the last year, the realization that I can live with both sorrow and joy has been helpful to me and others that I have been working with. I discovered this “Liturgy for embracing both joy and sorrow” in the book Every Moment Holy, Volume 2: Death, Grief and Hope by Douglas McKelvey, which has helped to sustain me on my journey:

Do not be distant, O Lord, lest I find this burden

of loss too heavy, and shrink from the

necessary experience of my grief.

Do not be distant, O Lord, lest I become so

mired in yesterday’s hurts that I miss entirely

the living gifts this day might hold.

Let me neither ignore my pain, pretending all

is okay when it isn’t, nor coddle and magnify

my pain, so that I dull my capacity to experience

all that remains good in this life.

For joy that denies sorrow is neither hard-won,

nor true, nor eternal. It is not real joy at all.

And sorrow that refuses to make space

for the return of joy and hope, in the end

becomes nothing more than a temple

for the worship of my own woundedness.

So give me strength, O God, to feel this grief

deeply, never to hide my heart from it. And give

me also hope enough to remain open to

surprising encounters with joy,

as one on a woodland path might stumble

suddenly into dapplings of golden light.

Amidst the pain that lades these days,

give me courage, O Lord; courage to live them

fully, to love and to allow myself to be loved,

to remember, grieve, and honor what was,

to live with thanksgiving in what is, and

to invest in the hope of what will be.

Be at work gilding these long heartbreaks

with the advent of new joys, good friendships,

true fellowships, unexpected delights. Remind

me again and again of your goodness, your

presence, your promises.

For this is who we are: a people

of The Promise—a people shaped

in the image of the God whose

very being generates all joy

in the universe, yet who also

weeps and grieves its brokenness.

So we, your children, are also at liberty

to lament our losses, even as we

simultaneously rejoice in the hope

of their coming restoration.

Let me learn now, O Lord, to do this

as naturally as the inhale and exhale

of a single breath:

To breathe out sorrow,

to breathe in joy.

To breathe out lament,

to breathe in hope.

To breathe out pain,

to breathe in comfort.

To breathe out sorrow,

to breathe in joy.

In one hand I grasp the burden of my grief,

while with the other I reach

for the hope of grief ‘s redemption.

And here, between the tension of the two,

between what was and what will be,

in the very is of now,

let my heart be surprised by, shaped by,

warmed by, remade by,

the same joy that forever wells within

and radiates from your heart, O God.

Amen.

Rev. Greg Allen-Pickett is Pastor and Head of Staff of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Nebraska. He is a native of Flagstaff, Arizona, where he was an active member of Federated Community Church. Greg is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and he also holds a Master of Divinity degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Greg has worked in small, medium, and large churches and also worked at the PC(USA) denominational offices in Louisville as the general manager of Presbyterian World Mission.