“If only You had been here” (John 11:21, NLT). Those are the words Martha cried out to Jesus in her moment of grief, and they ring hauntingly in the ears of pastors today helping grief-stricken families during the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly, we would be there if we could be there. Social distancing has subtly changed the comfort and care ministry churches provide to families grieving losses at this time.
Increasing numbers of people are experiencing intense fear and anxiety. Having to give up “normal” lives for the foreseeable future, many also are feeling a type of grief. Life as we knew it seems a thing of the past, its own kind of death.
Coming to you, their pastor, your people hope you can be an anchor in the storm. You can, to the extent that you navigate this pandemic for yourself and your own family emotionally—because you can’t give what you don’t have.
In her book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced us to the five stages of grief, which were later expanded to seven stages. David Drury, chief of staff of The Wesleyan Church, wrote the following (somewhat humorous) “7 Stages of Coronavirus Grief.” See if you can relate:
- Shock, denial, claiming it’s all a hoax, secretly begin hoarding, selling stocks if you’re filthy rich
- Pain, guilt, deleting old hoax posts, wondering if you infected Grandma, not mentioning things you are hoarding, social distancing
- Anger, bargaining, blaming those you typically disagree with for all this too, scolding other people for doing things slightly differently, posting rants
- Depression, reflection, loneliness, working from home, learning to homeschool, watching livestreams, applying for unemployment, occasional showering
- The upward turn, sharing stories, finding ways to connect with your relatives, caring about inspiriting human interest stories on the news for the first time ever
- Reconstruction, working through, finding ways to make the most of this era, connecting with neighbors, calling old friends, laughing on Zoom
- Acceptance, hope, realizing what matters most in life, loving family better, rediscovering generosity for the poor and vulnerable, finding a deeper faith
There is no timetable for grief; everyone is different. You can’t rush the stages or slow them down. Nor are the stages linear. You can venture through several of them all in one day or stay in one stage for a matter of weeks or months—so go easy on yourself and others!
One interesting observation I (Paul) have had during the past several weeks in numerous conversations with pastors is that many seem to be jumping over the first four stages, right into stages five to seven. Maybe this is due to the sudden nature of the change to church life that the coronavirus has brought.
By discerning new Spirit-led ways to be present, pastors can have a lasting and impactful ministry to those God has called us to serve.
With the vast majority taking weekly services online, this task alone has produced a significantly increased amount of work to already full plates for pastors. So too has the underlying sense of expectations from church members that pastors already struggle with: “I already have people tell me they think I only work one day a week. What will they think now?”
Any pastor’s ability to serve their church well increases to the degree that we rethink traditional ministry avenues. Here are a few simple, practical ideas for grief care in this season of social distancing:
- Families feeling the absence of a hospitalized family member, or the loss of a loved one who died alone of COVID-19, can still be impacted by the power of a personal touch. Consider a phone call over a text message, cards over emails. Video calls are a way to extend virtual presence.
- Traditionally, physical presence, providing food, sending flowers or contributing to funeral expenses are ways to provide comfort. Do the restrictions in your community allow for social-distanced, 6-foot front porch or window visits? In most communities, drop-off deliveries are legal, making meal trains and sending of flowers possible. Financial assistance can be as easy as setting up a GoFundMe page, sending a gift card for food delivery services via Postmates, DoorDash or Grubhub, or sending financial help via Venmo or PayPal.
- Nothing promotes anxiety for the grief-stricken like unanswered questions about memorial services. Pastors who have ready answers provide meaningful peace and comfort. Always ask authorities about local restrictions when determining your church plan for memorials. Are graveside services of 10 people, separated by 6-foot distances, allowed? Can a small family group be physically present for a memorial that is simulcast through a video platform? Could the church schedule a larger memorial on a future date? Planning a future memorial service can help some families begin processing memories and grief now.
For Martha, Jesus was present, though not at a time or in the way she wanted or expected. Yet His ministry forever changed her life and her family’s story. By discerning new Spirit-led ways to be present, pastors can have a lasting and impactful ministry to those God has called us to serve.
This article was written by Paul Kuzma, the director of Center for Spiritual Renewal–East, and Jason Reynolds, the director of Foursquare Chaplains International.