Pastors of the bereaved throughout COVID-19 | The change
Pastoring the bereaved requires wisdom and acute sensitivity at the best of times. Pastoring the bereaved during this epidemic and calling for “social distance” pose particular challenges.
People are unable to sit on the deathbed of those they love, physically hug family members and friends, or attend funerals in person.
If you are unable to participate in these rituals, it will likely result in longer grief for those who have lost loved ones during that time.
Grief is often a visceral response to the reality of a loved one torn from the fabric of our lives. This loss of relationship is often comforted by the embodied presence of surviving family members and friends. The pastoral challenge of the moment is knowing how to deploy the Ministry of Presence in an epidemic that requires social distancing. Allow me some suggestions for this season.
The seminar trains pastors to trust in the work of the Spirit through the service of the present while serving those who mourn. Nevertheless, many pastors feel restricted in their work in this unique season.
A college minister recently said to me, "I am thinking about Paul's ministry while he was in prison and unable to be with those who were dear to him." What can pastors do in this time of social constraints? I will make two suggestions that can be helpful.
Promote social connection
Isolation is dangerous. The American Psychological Association has announced a significant and widespread increase in depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms as a result of this epidemic and limitations in social life.
Research shows that even those of us who are introverted need a meaningful relationship connection to stay mentally, psychologically, and physically healthy. This is especially true after the death of a loved one, since isolation is one of the most important emotional characteristics of death.
It is unfortunate that the term "social distancing" has been used when the CDC guidelines actually require physical distancing. Language is important. As pastors, we can promote physical distance and at the same time promote social connection.
In this way we use one of the greatest assets of the Church, the priesthood of all believers, to practice the service of the present for those who mourn. In Romans 12, immediately after declaring that all members have gifts according to the Spirit, Paul says grief to those who grieve. This rare moment in history requires unique services.
Many churches have a COVID-19 response team. We could also consider setting up a mourning service. Encourage creative discussions about how parishioners can use pastoral care gifts to reach survivors before and after the funeral service.
We know that the bereaved often receive no visits or calls a few months after death. Create a ministry team that uses a calendar to strategically plan how the bereaved should be cared for at least the first two years after death.
Encourage the lawsuit
The term grief refers to the physical, emotional and psychological reactions to a loss that is important in our life.
We mourn not only for the dead, but for everything in our life that makes sense and is no longer with us. With every major transition in life, even the most positive, there are losses that are grieved. The loss of home and family security that some feel when they graduate from high school and go to college. The loss of spontaneous times together after a close friend married. Losing peer relationships when promoted to a leadership position.
I often see customers who do not realize that they are grieving for the loss of hopes and aspirations. As Langston Hughes beautifully portrayed in A Dream Deferred, a lost dream is also a death that can destroy the mind.
However, losing a loved one can be uniquely painful because we often find great personal security through relationships with people close to us, which psychologists call secure attachment.
Unfortunately, Christians may feel guilty about deep and sometimes prolonged grief, fearing that this indicates some form of idolatry or lack of self-sufficiency in Christ. This guilt further isolates the bereaved from the faith community.
As pastors, we do our best to remind our church members that God's love and affirmation is often conveyed and made tangible to us by the people He has brought into our lives. Our common calling as reflectors of God's image is to be the mediator of grace.
As pastors, we can encourage the bereaved to complain of a biblically faithful process that recognizes God's presence amidst emotional pain and disappointment. I often remind believers that the lawsuit occupies a prominent place in Scripture and is one of the greatest genres of poetry in the Psalms.
During this season, some not only have to mourn the death of their loved ones, but also their inability to be physically present with the body and loved ones. This may well involve expressing anger toward God, which the Psalmists and Prophets do in Scripture.
As pastors, we can give permission and, if necessary, we can express the fear, isolation and confusion that many feel during this period of social reticence due to the epidemic.
The biblical complaint enables emotional processing not only of the loved one's death, but also of other negative feelings that are often left unspoken. Relationships in a fallen world include pain, unforgiveness, resentment, and feelings of guilt that are often not talked about after death.
As pastors, we can offer sacred space to these contradictory and too often hidden emotions. The feelings are there, the question is whether we will process them with God or alone. It can be helpful for church members to know that the psalmists complain of everything from abuse by others to feelings of isolation to feelings that God is not responding to their cry (see Pss. 10, 13, 25, 44, 88) .
Jeremiah lamented the loss and betrayal of friends who were close to him. Both he and Job mourned the day they were born (Jer. 20; Job 3).
As a pastor, I often told church members that even Jesus used Psalm 22: 1 to mourn his separation from God on the cross. Sometimes I would also like to point out that with few exceptions, Psalms of Lament end with a word of praise.
Therefore, as we complain, we follow the gospel rhythms of death, burial, and resurrection. Our church members can be assured that lament is an act of courageous faith, an act that trusts that the God we find in Jesus is big enough, loving enough, and gracious enough to hear our pain and empathetic to respond to our needs.
In most seminar trainings we are taught to faithfully convey God's word and grace to people. A crucial and often neglected priestly task is to present the general pain, anger and questioning of the humanities towards God. This is part of our service to cry with those who cry. May the Lord's grace be with you to convey creativity, perseverance and a wealth of wisdom as you serve the hurts during this time.
Eric M. Brown, PhD, is program director of the M.A. in clinical mental health counseling at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL.