We all have times in our lives when we are forced to deal with loss, whether it’s the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage, the death of a pet, the loss of a job or any number of other types of loss. Based upon our communities and religious backgrounds we have likely learned different ways to mourn and to live with grief.
The common thread among nearly all cultural traditions and religious beliefs in relation to grief at the loss of a loved one is an expression of public mourning. There are many reasons for that public expression of our sorrow. Among the most important reasons is that we find support in community. Through communal mourning we have others to talk with about our loved one and can share the feelings that are wrapped up with our grief. These opportunities for sharing our grief help us on the journey of finding peace with the loss.
“Communal grieving offers something that we cannot get when we grieve by ourselves.
Through validation, acknowledgement and witnessing, communal grieving allows us to experience a level of healing that is deeply and profoundly freeing.” – Sobonfu Somé
Over the past year, one of the great challenges we have faced collectively is the loss of that communal grieving. Since the pandemic began so many of us have lost family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues to COVID-19 as well as to other causes. Not only have we been unable to be present with our loved ones at their passing; but we have also been unable to gather in-person to grieve, remember, mark their passing or celebrate their lives. We have not been able to access the healing balm that can be found in public mourning and shared grief.
In many traditions, one of the first things people do when a loved one dies is to gather around the family members – offering food, emotional support, a witness to their grief and help with the many arrangements that need to be made for a funeral. During the pandemic, those who were grieving had to forego so much of that support for the sake of safety. Out of necessity, the sharing of grief and ceremony has largely been shifted to virtual gatherings.
Since the beginning of 2021 I have experienced two losses in two quite different ways that vividly demonstrated to me the differences between grieving together and grieving apart.
The first experience was the loss of a friend who had been living with cancer for several years. Her gradual decline allowed her loved ones to intellectually understand that her life was nearing its end and perhaps prepare for it emotionally to a certain extent; yet the grief was nonetheless acute when the end did come. She was a person who had touched many lives with the love of her generous heart. Due to the restrictions related to the pandemic and the risks presented by gathering in large groups, the family chose to offer a funeral service/celebration of life virtually.
The virtual offering allowed those attending to see the lectern, with surrounding decorative elements, where the celebrant and speakers could be seen and heard. The perspective the camera offered did not allow participants to see any of the family members who were present unless they went to the lectern to share readings or memories. There was a chat window on the screen where those attending virtually could offer words of support and love for the family to read at a later time.
While every effort was made to make the service feel personal and intimate, about half-way through I found myself feeling dreadfully alone. I couldn’t help but think of all the people since the pandemic began who had found themselves in similar situations, sitting in front of their electronic devices and grieving alone. I wept for a long time, for my friend, for her loved ones and for all the others who have had to grieve in isolation.
As I sat with all I was feeling, I began to wonder what it was, in addition to the loss, that had touched me so deeply. I thought about the ceremony I had witnessed and realized I hadn’t been able to look anyone in the eyes. I hadn’t been able to see my friend whose partner had passed. I wasn’t able to hug anyone. I wasn’t able to cry with anyone or feel our collective grief or hear the resonance of their voices. It was an infinitely more difficult process than I had imagined it would be.
A month or so later, a dear family friend died unexpectedly. After a week, we learned that they were planning a mass for her in the Ukrainian Catholic Church that she attended. They would be observing social distancing protocols, including requiring attendees to wear masks; but it would be a public event. The woman we had lost was the Godmother of one of my sisters and one of my parents’ best friends. Her five children and my five siblings and I had grown up together. They were not offering an online option for attending so I had to decide if I would feel safe attending the funeral in person. I knew my parents would not be able to attend and were feeling heartbroken about that. In the end, two of my siblings and I decided to take the risk and attend the funeral.
As expected, it was a completely different experience than the one I had attended online. The family members had a receiving line to greet attendees. I was able to look the family members in the eye, offer my condolences, share our grief face-to-face, witness the open casket, pray with them, laugh with them, share memories and tears with them and feel our collective grief. I was able to be there to bear witness to their grief and to offer love, support and presence.
When I looked at both experiences, the aspect that made all the difference was presence. In-person we are able to be present with each other with our words, our eyes, our laughter, our memories, our voices lifted in prayer or song. There is something about the resonance of voices when mourning together. There is something about the sound of laughter when mixed with tears. There is something about sitting physically beside others who are mourning. There is something about the simple act of offering someone else a tissue, a shoulder to lean on or a plate of food (which we still couldn’t do with social distancing). There is something profoundly healing in being together and mourning collectively.
While I believe that the restrictions we have been observing (and will continue to observe) have been the right course of action, one of the many irreplaceable things that have been lost is that opportunity for communal grieving. Finding that sense of connection and presence will be an on-going challenge until we have safely moved past the dangers of this coronavirus.
That means we have to find creative ways to reach out to each other safely in the midst of our mourning. We have to find new ways to be present with each other until we can gather in-person to grieve and to celebrate a loved one. It may feel more challenging or feel like it takes more effort in the face of our own grief, but it can be done. A simple phone call could make a world of difference. It offers the intimacy of hearing each other’s voice one-on-one. It offers the opportunity to share memories, laughter and tears safely. Even if you find you can only leave a voicemail message for someone, they will still hear the presence in your voice. Perhaps you can safely drive by their home and leave a care package of food, flowers, a card or something you’ve made or bought that you know will offer them comfort. You can make eye contact with them and offer a smile through a window or door to let them know you have brought them an offering of love. You can make a video or audio recording sharing one of your favorite memories of your mutual loved one, perhaps even record it in a location that was significant to you both or include a photograph or two. Let your love for the person you’ve both lost be your guide when choosing what to share.
While the pandemic has highlighted the importance and benefits of grieving together in community, the loss of that opportunity means that it is more important than ever to find creative and loving ways to let someone know that we are present with them as we grieve together from a distance.