SMcK: Please give us a sketch of your stories of grief and funerals and dying during COVID-19.

By Sara Gaston Barton, who is the Pepperdine University Chaplain.

Two weeks after my mom died, my community was impacted by a tragic mass shooting, followed hours later by a devastating wildfire. My job as a chaplain meant that I served community members who lost friends in the shooting, were personally traumatized by violence, lost homes completely, or were displaced from their homes for months or even years. The list of sadness and devastation still ripples on and on today. Chaplains show up during crisis and grief. It’s central to what we do.

During that time, however, my personal grief of losing my mom was deferred, crowded out by emergencies. I essentially put my grief on hold, something I didn’t even know could happen before I experienced it for myself. People who have lived through similar tragedies may be able to identify with how the urgency of the immediate demands every waking moment.

Because of my experiences with grief deferred, I have been thinking about the many grieving people who are forced to defer grief during COVID-19. Around the world, thousands upon thousands are experiencing loss due to the virus, as well as deaths unrelated to the virus. Many were not able to be with their loved one or get closure in their last moments due to hospital restrictions and have not been able to gather and mourn with family and communities of faith due to physical distancing measures.

I’ve also been thinking of the people who personally knew the beloved souls who were tragically killed in recent months and whose pictures, names and videos they see on the news. Thousands of people knew George Floyd, Breonna Tayor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Elijah McClain, but they did not get closure with them and many friends and family were not able to be at memorials due to travel restrictions. And in all this grief, folks have not been able to see their priest, imam, pastor, or rabbi. They haven’t been able to feel the arms of a friend around them, or stand by a graveside with family members. Grief is already a lonely journey, and now it is exacerbated by the pandemic.

Grief is already a lonely journey, and now it is exacerbated by the pandemic.

I have been reflecting on my own experience with deferred grief, and I want to share a few stories from that season to describe how I eventually found my way through personal grief in the midst of communal crisis. I hope these reflections, borne of personal trial-and-error, will help someone else work through grief during this lonely time.

Own your grief. In light of the tragic events in my community, I wondered if my grief was significant enough to warrant attention: the attention of friends whose homes burned in the fires or colleagues who were busy like I was. Since others could not grieve with me, I did not acknowledge my grief, but that was not a healthy choice. Eventually, I stumbled upon a way to own my grief when I wore my mother’s clothes. I have a kimono my mom wore in the nursing home, her name written on the tag with a Sharpy like kids do at camp or old folks do at nursing homes, and every time I am wrapped in it, I heal a little bit. Feeling its fabric right up against my skin helps me own my grief, literally live in it. So even if you are in a house grieving alone, consider wearing something to embody your grief. In the tradition of a bygone era, wear black for a week or a month or as long as you need. If you don’t want to wear black, wear white. Or red. Or your loved one’s favorite color. Or as I did, wear your loved one’s clothing or jewelry. It’s one tangible way to acknowledge your grief and is available to you immediately.

Find an outlet for expressing the emotions of grief. There are all kinds of healthy outlets for grief: running, sewing, screaming, and on and on. The outlet I discovered was writing in cursive. I received advice from a grief therapist that journaling can be helpful, especially when writing in cursive. I don’t write in cursive often anymore, but I took that advice and wrote. I wrote memories, descriptions, prayers and narratives of my Mom’s decline, the day of her death and her funeral. I wrote on and on, and as I cried, laughed, and cussed about her and my grief, my scribbles tangibly helped me grieve.

Eat food that connects you to your loved one. Just days before she passed, one of my mom’s last meals was strawberry shortcake that she ate with her sister. Aunt Connie says that after they ate nursing-home shortcake together, Mom said to her as she was leaving, “We had a fun little party, didn’t we, Connie?” That story touches me so deeply that I can’t tell it without sobbing. As I began to realize my grief could not be deferred, I intentionally made strawberry shortcake and ate it through my tears. It was a bittersweet mixture of saltwater and sugar, which is a lot like life with my mom. So, if you are grieving and alone, eat something that your loved one loved.

Throw out whatever grief rules you think exist. Seriously. Write them down on paper and burn them. Or bury them in your yard or a potted plant. Every person grieves differently. I thought it went like this: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Those are the classic stages, the rules as I saw them. Maybe it’s just me, but the only stage I ever recognized for certain was depression. Here’s how it went for me: Crying. Crying. Crying. And crying. And eventually, I guess I cried my way to acceptance. So, whatever you need to do in these strange COVID times, let go of any rules that may be holding you back, and let your grief journey be specific to you and your circumstance.

If you are grieving, I’m sorry for your loss. And in these unprecedented times, I’m sorry that your loved one did not get the send-off they deserved and that you didn’t get to mourn in expected ways. May you find help and light in your grief journey despite your circumstances. And in my line of work, I pray with hope that God may grant you peace.

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,

and saves the crushed in spirit.”

Psalm 34:18 (NRSV)