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Shepherding the Grieving in a Pandemic

Rhyne Putman

Shepherding during a global pandemic has taught me a lot of new skills as a pastor that seminary could not have prepared me for. I had to learn how to preach to a screen, operate my own camera, and edit my own videos. I became the I.T. guy for senior adult Sunday school classes meeting over webcams. I have presided over a Monday afternoon business meeting in the church parking lot with a quorum of six, all sitting comfortably in their cars. And our greeters are now equipped with masks and no-touch thermometers. 

But the hardest thing I have had to do in the age of the coronavirus is minister to the dying and grieving who lack the ordinary channels of saying goodbye.

Earlier in the spring, I officiated in an outdoor funeral for a member of my church who passed away with COVID-19. I stood there, Bible open in the shadow of a south Louisiana mausoleum, preaching to a small group of family members whose faces I could not see. The bandana-covered bereaved looked more like a gang about to rob a stagecoach than mourners at a funeral. Even by normal funeral standards, it was an unusual and uncomfortable affair.

Like everyone else in America, I am tired of the coronavirus. I am bored with television, anxious to travel and see family, and nervous about what the future holds for the people of God. I have also seen the devastating effects of COVID-19 firsthand. Our parish (or county, for people who live outside of Louisiana) has been the most affected parish in the state of Louisiana, a state which, as of late May, had over 34,000 confirmed cases. Eight of my church members have tested positive for the virus, and two have died from complications with it.

Ministry to the grieving has always been one of the hardest parts of pastoring. But ministry to the grieving in a pandemic requires extra sensitivity and care for the new and unique burdens they face.

Sensitivity to the situation

In this politically charged medical crisis, people have often been reduced to statistics or partisan talking points. I have heard well-meaning Christians say things like, “The virus only affects the elderly,” or, “The only ones who die are those with underlying medical conditions.” True, the data says the people who are most affected by the virus fall into these categories. Both people who have died from the virus in my church were in their 90s and had preexisting medical conditions. But neither of these congregants died because they were ignoring the quarantine or violating stay-at-home orders. The virus was transmitted by someone coming in and out of the assisted living facilities where they lived. They became victims of the virus along with many others living in these facilities.

While there is a temptation to reduce such individuals to CDC statistics supporting one political narrative or another, I learned very quickly to restrain any such language or thought when I was talking to their grieving children. No one would dare say, “Well, they were just old,” or, “I’m sorry for your loss, but they had preexisting conditions.” Regardless of their age or medical history, they left behind hurting children and grandchildren who loved their moms and grandmothers. One of these women, a beloved Sunday school teacher, left behind a class of grieving women she had been ministering to for more than four decades.

Though we may feel alone, we can rest assured that the God who created us will continue to sustain us in every situation until the end of our lives.

Each of these individuals was made in the image of God and worthy of the basic human dignity we can bestow on them. So, for example, if me wearing a mask when I go grocery shopping reduces the risk of someone else’s grandmother going through this, it would be worth the small sacrifice on my part. More importantly, I can be careful about the words I use when venting my frustrations or concerns about the present cultural and political climate. I never want to reduce these sweet saints to political talking points.

Embracing at a distance

The practical realities surrounding funerals have changed for the time being. During the initial phase of the stay-at-home orders, many funerals were restricted to groups of 10 or smaller. By the end of May, funerals had been increased to a 25% capacity service as long as strict social distancing practices were maintained. While many of these restrictions feel like necessary evils, they have changed the grieving process for friends and family members, as well as those who are ministering to them.

A few of my church members with larger families have opted to have graveside goodbyes strictly restricted to family members. Consequently, I was left out of a few services I normally would have conducted. Many of our families have planned future memorial services at the church—whenever we have the freedom to conduct them the way the family would like to have them. We have had to be extremely flexible and provide alternate means for those grieving to celebrate the lives of these individuals.

For those services I have participated in, a lot of my normal pastoral routines have been disrupted. I have not made in-home visits or looked through the Bibles of the deceased to take a look at their favorite verses. Worst of all, for the first time in my life as a pastor, I could not put my arms around those who were suffering. The preacher in Ecclesiastes speaks of “a time to embrace and a time to avoid embracing” (3:5b). In one of those latter times to avoid embracing, I have had to learn ways in which I could embrace at a distance. At funerals, I have stood at a distance and attempted to communicate my empathy as much as I could with my words and body language. None of it has felt natural or comfortable to me. I have had to be quite intentional about communicating with the grieving, routinely checking in with them, and offering whatever assistance we as a church were capable of providing.

Letting go without touching

Over the last four years, my in-laws have lost all four of their elderly parents. I have learned a lot about the importance of touch from my mother-in-law, who was clasping each of her parents’ hands in the moments they took their final breaths. Physical touch is as important for the person dying as it is for the person they leave behind. Reassuring touches help people who are dying to go peacefully into the arms of Jesus. Even in their unconscious states, they feel the presence of love as they leave this world and enter the next. But because of state and local regulations restricting or reducing the number of guests from hospital rooms and hospices, many sick and elderly people are dying without anyone they know at their side.

The greatest pain many family members have had to face during this time is separation from their loved ones in their final days. I have been told by some that they had to say goodbye to their loved ones through a window or an iPad screen. They have had to deal with additional feelings of guilt or inadequacy. They have worried about their loved ones dying alone in cold, sterile hospital rooms without someone there to hold their hands. They have had to let go of their moms and dads without ever touching them.

The only encouraging words I can muster for family members who feel this come from Scripture: “Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me” (Psa. 23:4). Even in life’s valleys where death casts its big, ugly shadow, those who know the Lord continue to live in his presence. God has repeatedly promised never to leave or forsake us (Deut. 31:6, 8; Josh. 1:5; Heb. 13:5). Though we may feel alone, we can rest assured that the God who created us will continue to sustain us in every situation until the end our lives.

Even if no one else saw this crisis coming, God did, and he knows exactly how to walk his people through it. Peter reassured a church in crisis with this message: “Even though now for a short time, if necessary, you suffer grief in various trials,” and, “though you have not seen him, you love him; though not seeing him now, you believe in him, and you rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:6, 8–9). In the same way, may we model trust in and faithful speech about the one who we do not presently see, for he is still at work in our midst. He is present with the dead, the dying, and those who are left behind.

Rhyne Putman is associate vice president for Academic Affairs, director of Worldview Formation, and professor of Christian Ministries at Williams Baptist University.