Grieving in a Time of Plague
Many people talked about “cabin fever” during the social distancing necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic, often musing about the places they wish they could go—the beach or a restaurant or a baseball game. But the one place I found myself longing to visit was not one I might have guessed originally: a funeral home.
During the months of quarantine, my 92-year-old grandmother died peacefully in her sleep. Neither I, nor most of our family, could attend her funeral, since public health guidelines and prudence meant that fewer than 10 people could gather. Our family, scattered across the country, grieved alone, all remembering the life of a woman who loved, and was loved, intensely by her children, grandchildren, friends, and church. We knew we would have to wait until this crisis is over (whenever that is) to have a “normal” memorial service for her.
I noticed as I grieved that, without a funeral, it did not seem quite real. And I wondered how many other people—with thousands dead from the coronavirus, not to mention those who, like my grandmother, died from other causes—were in the same situation. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to an article in The Atlantic by funeral director/essayist Thomas Lynch about how we are meant to mark life and death.
“The fear of death, of ceasing to be, includes the fear that our stories will die with us, and won’t be told or will be told incorrectly,” Lynch writes. He goes on to say: “If death steals everything except our stories, pandemics—like famines and holocausts—do their best not to grant us the time it takes to pay respects, to get our story right, to get our story told, to share the story with family and friends, to tell them that what took us in the end may have been COVID-19, but that fact is only a footnote, not our story.”
There’s some truth to that. A funeral is the way of getting our stories straight. That’s why one of the most important aspects of grieving is not just the rituals of the funeral but all the telling of stories about the deceased—especially those that make us laugh. That’s what reminds us that we still remember not just the facts of this person, but the story.
For Christians, this sort of “keeping of a story” should remind us that we don’t have to keep it. The Pharaohs built the pyramids as their gravestones. But there’s a Burger King in view of the pyramids, and few taking selfies in front of them know the name of Amenhotep or Ramses.
Remembrance is important. That’s an essential part of the sign Jesus has given us in communion (“Do this in remembrance of me”). But even more important is, well, communion. The truth that Jesus is alive, and he breaks the bread, and fills the cup. We know that, for those in Christ, our stories are “hidden in Christ,” waiting to be unveiled in glory with him (Col. 3:3-4). That means that no part of that story is lost, but all of it is redeemed, and merged with the Story that took on flesh and dwelled among us (Jn. 1:14).
Not all of us have lost family members. But all of us are grieving. We grieve the deaths of people we love. We grieve the loss of our ability to gather each week in worship. And we grieve the threat of the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” that seems especially close right now. The pandemic can prompt us, wrongly, to think of deaths as statistics, but Lynch is right to remind us that it is just a footnote to all those stories. And, for Christians, death itself is just a footnote. And I use that term in more ways that one—since the Bible tells us death will soon be under the feet of the triumphant Christ (1 Cor. 15:25-26).
The pandemic could stop us from saying “goodbye” to my grandmother right now. But it, nor anything else, can stop us from saying “hello” to her later.