Let me guess. You read the title of this week’s blog post and thought to yourself, “Preparing for Lent?! I have almost 2 months of worship to prepare for before I even think about Lent.” While that is true, the Lenten season will be here before we know it. And I believe that, considering the past two years, we have a lot of work to do to truly be ready to rise at Easter.
So much has changed. We’ve missed celebrating birthday parties, graduations, wedding anniversaries, even weddings themselves. We’ve watched as people have turned on one another and experience heartache as friendships are lost, damaged, even destroyed. Fighting across the aisle has been turned up to a level that borders on uncivilized. What happens in our world tends to make its way into the church, as they watch their numbers dwindle, some as a result of relocation or a specific political view, others who have moved from this life into the next. The whole matter of loved ones dying and family and friends not being able to grieve in the usual ways, mourn communally, or mark their passing has slowed down people’s ability to rebound.
Not being able to grieve the losses of the pandemic has left us stuck, feeling incomplete and even isolated. Many people have died alone, without family or friends to visit, without pastoral calls or prayer. This has weighed heavy on churches and their leaders. Grief in and of itself is hard to bear. Weighed down by unprocessed grief, it’s hard for churches to move forward. Indeed, it’s hard for the world to move forward, as we are all grieving something or someone. When mourners are unable to share stories and be comforted by one another or have a place to go long afterwards, it creates a deep sense of displacement.
A May 2020 study on grief published in Psychiatry stated, “Funeral and burial rituals are important for the affective adjustment of people grieving the loss of a loved one and mourners who drew comfort from planning and participating in the funeral were shown to achieve better outcomes in later grief. From this perspective, being prevented from holding a proper funeral for their loved ones might prevent COVID-19 mourners from gaining awareness of the reality of the death and from understanding and framing their loss, besides eliminating a significant important occasion of social support.”
How does the church move on from this experience? The time between now and Lent is our opportunity to do so. Below are five ways that you can help your congregation move forward.
1. We would do well to look at the Jewish traditions for grieving. In traditional Judaism, funerals happen as soon as possible after a death occurs and the following week is spent solely at home with family and members of the Jewish community. Customary prayers are recited daily to honor the dead. This week is intended to focus on accepting loss and to encourage healing. A longer, formal mourning process lasts 30 days, where mourners slowly reintegrate themselves into the world. Prayers continue to be recited daily. If a parent is lost, this formal mourning lasts eleven months. In the eleventh month, an unveiling ceremony takes place, wherein the gravestone is revealed. In the years that follow on the anniversary of death, a candle that burns for 24 hours is lit in memory of the deceased. Setting precedence for a longer mourning process will help those that are grieving create expectations and know that they are not leaving their loved ones behind.
2. Draw comfort from your faith, focus on your wellbeing, and set boundaries. Being church leaders, we’re sometimes expected to have all the answers. I’m sure you’ve had members of your congregations and communities ask how they are supposed to navigate these times. You may be lost, feeling like you’re trying to figure that out right now too. Not having all the answers can make you feel inadequate, or like you aren’t doing “enough.” This isn’t true. Trying to do everything only leads to burn-out and emotional fatigue.
3. Acknowledge that we are living in a different time. Be resourceful with how you can bring people together. Now, more than ever, it is so important that we make social connections a priority. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Facetime, and other video conferencing platforms are great for bringing people together, while still maintaining social distance.
4. Create emotionally safe spaces for people to share their hurt without feeling judged. Do your best to listen to those that feel comfortable enough to share these deeply personal feelings with you. Oftentimes, listening and truly being present is more consoling than offering advice or explanation.
5. Encourage those that you support to create their own rituals. Journaling, doing activities that remind them of their loved ones, or planting a tree in their memory are all healthy and effective ways for others to express their feelings and continue in the healing process.
It goes without saying that we aren’t going to be able to change everything, but we do have the power to change certain things. These changes will make a difference in how those in our congregations and communities experience and grapple with grief. Addressing these now will allow us to truly be prepared for Lent and to rise for the resurrection.
Excerpted and adapted from Rebekah Simon-Peter’s upcoming book, Growing the Post-Pandemic Church (Market Square Publishers, 2022)
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