Death is a doorway. The person who dies moves through that doorway into the mystery. My faith in the God who is love tells me that the mystery is a place beyond suffering, beyond struggle, and beyond judgment. My faith tells me that if it is an experience, it is an experience of love. May our beloved dead be held in that mystery and that peace.
We who are left behind also move through a doorway into grief. Grief is not a place, it is a journey. There are corridors and pathways and more doorways in front of us. The first stage of mourning usually involves the most ritual. Friends and family come together, often stopping their normal lives to attend to the death. They bring food. Those closest to the person who died write an obituary. They cry together and laugh together and share stories. The first stage of grief includes the comfort of being together.
The pandemic we’re in now has led us off this comforting path of grief. Families are together remotely. One family opened a zoom call in their loved one’s hospice room and kept it going throughout the last day of his life. Family members dropped in and out to keep vigil. We talk on the phone and comfort each other as best we can. We can’t necessarily be with our loved ones in care facilities and hospitals. We rely on the compassion and presence of the workers with our loved ones. We are finding ways to tend to the rituals of death and dying even in a pandemic.
When I learn of the death of a member of the church, or the loved one of one of our members, I call the family as soon as I can. I usually visit. Together, we plan a memorial service or funeral. We talk about what music the departed person loved, which were their favorite hymns, their favorite poems or passages from scripture. We talk about who will want to share memories during the service. I learn the story of their loved one’s life so I can offer a eulogy. We plan flowers, a guest book, a reception. The details and rituals of the church offer comfort in the first stages of grief.
These rituals, too, must be different during the COVID pandemic. We cannot hold memorial services or funerals inside the church during the quarantine in Massachusetts. Instead, we can plan them for the future, once limits on gatherings are lifted.
The church can still help you mourn. I am available to lead graveside services or a very small memorial service in the church garden for 9 or fewer family members. I will call you and be with you on the phone as best I can. We will remember your loved one in prayer on Sunday.
It’s not enough for what we want. The rituals of mourning are never enough for what we want. They never reunite us with our loved one, they never undo our grief. They move us from one doorway to another, to the doorway where we really let the spirit of our loved one go and begin the process of learning to live without them.
The rituals of mourning are enough for what we need. They give us the daily bread for our spirit, to get us through one day and on to the next. We cannot do what we usually do, but we will do what we can. Your church is with you on that hard journey even if we can’t be together in person.
I love you and I’m thinking of you. May the peace of God, the peace of love and comfort, be with you and among you always.
Rev. Sarah Stewart