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Pastoring the Bereaved During COVID-19

"The joy of our hearts has ceased; dancing has been turned to mourning." Lamentations 5:15
Pastoring the Bereaved During COVID-19
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Pastoring the bereaved requires wisdom and acute sensitivity during the best of times. Pastoring the bereaved during this epidemic and the call to “social distance” has particular challenges.

People are not able to sit at the death bed of those they love, physically embrace family members and friends, or attend funerals in person.

Not being able to participate in these rituals will likely result in prolonged grief for those who have lost loved ones during this time.

Grief is often a visceral response to the reality of a loved one being ripped from the fabric of our life. This relational loss is often consoled by the embodied presence of surviving family members and friends. The pastoral challenge of the moment is knowing how to provide the ministry of presence in an epidemic that has called for social distancing. Allow me to offer a few suggestions for this season.

In seminary, pastors are trained to trust in the Spirit’s work through the ministry of presence while ministering to those who grieve. Yet many pastors are feeling constrained in their work during this unique season.

As one college minister said to me recently, “I’m finding myself reflecting upon Paul’s ministry while he was in prison and not able to be with those he cared so deeply for.” So what can pastors do during this time of social restrictions? I’ll offer two suggestions that may be helpful.

Encourage Social Connection

Isolation is dangerous. The American Psychological Association has announced a significant and widespread increase of depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms as a result of this epidemic and restrictions to social life.

Research shows that even those of us who are introverted need meaningful relational connection in order to stay spiritually, psychologically, and physically healthy. This is especially true after the death of a loved one as one of the primary emotional characteristics of bereavement is isolation.

It is unfortunate that the phrase “social distancing” has been used when the CDC guidelines actually call for physical distancing. Language is important. As pastors, we can encourage physical distancing while encouraging social connection.

By doing so, we deploy one of the church’s greatest assets, the priesthood of all believers, to practice the ministry of presence to those who are grieving. In Romans 12, right after stating that all members have gifts according to the Spirit, Paul says grieve with those who grieve. This rare moment in history calls for unique ministries.

Many churches have a COVID-19 response team, we may also consider creating a bereavement ministry. Encourage creative discussions on how church members with gifts related to pastoral care can reach out to the bereaved before and after the funeral service.

We know that the bereaved often stop receiving visits and phone calls a few months after a death. Create a ministry team who will use a calendar to strategically plan how to care for the bereaved during at least the first two years after a death.

Encourage Lament

The term grief denotes the physical, emotional, and psychological responses to a loss that is significant in our lives.

We grieve not only the loss of the dead but anything in our lives that is meaningful and no longer with us. With any major transition in life, even the most positive, there are losses that will be grieved. The loss of the security of home and family that some feel when they graduate from high-school and go off to college. The loss of spontaneous times together after a close friend gets married. The loss of peer relationships when one gets promoted to a leadership position.

I often see clients who do not realize they are grieving the loss of hopes and aspirations. As Langston Hughes beautifully depicted in his poem A Dream Deferred, a lost dream is also a death that can crush the spirit.

Yet the loss of a loved one can be uniquely painful as we often find great personal security, what psychologist refer to as a secure attachment, through relationships with those close to us.

Unfortunately, Christians may feel guilt over deep and sometimes prolonged bereavement as they fear it indicates some form of idolatry or a lack of finding one’s sufficiency in Christ. This guilt further isolates the bereaved from the community of faith.

As pastors, we do well to remind our parishioners that God’s love and affirmation for us is often mediated and made tangible through the people he has brought into our lives. Our shared calling as reflectors of God’s image is to be brokers of grace.

As pastors we can encourage the bereaved to engage in lament as a biblically faithful process that acknowledges God’s presence in the midst of one’s emotional pain and disappointment. I often remind believers that lament has a prominent place in scripture, and is one of the largest genres of poetry in the Psalms.

During this season some will need to lament not only the death of their beloved but also their inability to be physically present with the body and loved ones. This may very well include expressing anger to God, which the Psalmists and prophets are found to do in scripture.

As pastors we can give permission, and when needed, give voice to the anguish, isolation, and bewilderment many are feeling during this time of social restraint as a result of the epidemic.

Biblical lament allows for the emotional processing of not only the death of the beloved but also other negative feelings often left unspoken. Relationships in a fallen world include pain, unforgiveness, resentment, and feelings of guilt, that often are not talked about after a death.

As pastors, we can provide sacred space for these conflicting and too often hidden emotions. The feelings are there, the question is whether we will process them with God or on our own. It can be helpful for parishioners to know that the psalmists’ lament everything from being mistreated by others, to feeling isolated, to feelings that God is not responding to their cry (see Pss. 10, 13, 25, 44, 88).

Jeremiah lamented the loss and betrayal friends who were close to him, both he and Job lamented the day of their birth (Jer. 20; Job 3).

As a senior pastor I often told parishioners that even Jesus used Psalm 22:1 to lament his separation from God while on the cross. At times I would also point out that with only a few exceptions Psalms of lament end with a word of praise.

Therefore, as we engage in lament we are following the gospel rhythms of death, burial, and resurrection. Our parishioners 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 respond empathetically to our needs.

In most seminary training we are taught to faithfully mediate God’s word and graces to people. Yet, a crucial and often neglected priestly task is to represent humanities common pain, angers, and questioning to God. This is a part of our ministry to weep with those who weep. May the grace of the Lord be with you, to provide creativity, stamina, and an abundance of wisdom as you minister to the hurting 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.

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Pastoring the Bereaved During COVID-19