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Sometimes people say that their severe loss is like a hole in their hearts. It is so hard to describe that empty space, that tear in the fabric of the universe. When it happens we struggle to adjust to something or someone who is not there. We are adjusting to a negative space, which is completely different from adjusting to a new presence in our life, like when we find a new friend or take home a new baby. What is hard to describe is that we are not just sad about missing someone beloved. We are hearing a whistling wind coming from a space that was filled and is now empty.
You see this empty spot when you walk past the bedroom or look at that chair at the dinner table where no one sits now and there is less conversation, or that speed dial list on your cell phone with a name that goes absolutely nowhere. It is challenging enough in life to adjust to someone who has come into your life, more challenging still when it is someone who has disappeared. In that space they used to occupy, now an empty hole, is a loud silence.
Four months after Eva died I was struck by how different each passing phase was. The early days had been so terrifying. I thought back to how it seemed, in those early days, that death was like a grizzly bear that had invaded the camp of our small family and dragged one away, and I lived with excruciating anxiety that this monster could at any moment drag someone else away without notice. I had to force myself to focus intently on the alternative view of death, that it is part of life, that life is a gift no matter how long, and that the providence of God guarantees that God’s love is never diminished. I remembered this sense that Eva was falling off a cliff right before my eyes, and my outstretched arm was not long enough to catch her.
But that moment had passed. There was this new reality that could not be denied. It was time to focus on this truth, and I said it over and over out loud: “Right now, Eva is not suffering. Right now, she is not in pain. I don’t have to rescue her.” I said it to myself, often out loud, over and over. It helped. It helped a lot.
The terror was gone now, but four months into it pain still lurked in any shadowy moment of any day or night. The emptiness of loss is constant. Ingrid and I can rejoice that we had thirty years with Eva, and that is good but it does not fill in the emptiness. No hug, no conversation, not the slightest sound of rustling from her room. Four months in and I was getting used to that. Reality had sunk in. Accepting a harsh reality is better than forgetting the reality. I would rather go through the day with this reality always within my peripheral vision rather than forgetting and in the quiet part of the day having the reality flash back to mind like getting hit in the head from behind.
How we need to understand the people in our lives who have gone through significant loss. One of the most purposeful things any of us can do is to show compassion and to be present with those who have suffered loss. We all have different preferred ways of doing that. Whether we prefer sending a card, or an email, or responding on social media, or having a face-to-face conversation, or picking up the phone, or sending flowers, that’s fine. We just need to do something. Don’t believe that the best thing is to give your friend or loved one space. In our case the cards and conversations were not a burden but a blessing. If we didn’t want the contact, we didn’t pick up the phone or we waited to open cards for a few days. We went out in public when we were ready. Those who grieve need to be able to call the shots.
We cannot ignore loss, and we must not multiply it. I am running into more and more people who have suffered one loss on top of another—within their families, in their jobs, in their churches. Some losses we cannot prevent. But we should avoid creating more loss.
Over the years I have tried to have empathy for those who suffer loss. After all, that’s pretty central to the calling of a pastor. But I realize that we tend to put loss in categories. People whose loved one died of cancer. Or who lost a spouse. Or who lost a child. But there is nothing generic about grief. It is all personal. Even within my family, the loss of Eva is one thing to Ingrid, something else to Christopher as sole sibling, something different to other relatives and friends. I know it is different for me. I loved being the father of a daughter. It was one of the truly great parts of my life. To try to be reliable, to guide, to learn together, to work together, and, so importantly, to protect. It is hard not to feel like an utter failure when I could not protect my kid from disease and death. That sticks with me. All the time. It is an oppressive thought, but not surprising, and necessary to deal with.
There is nothing generic about grief. Somehow we have to have empathy. To try to understand. To put ourselves in the shoes of the mourner. At the same time, to realize that we will never comprehend what this particular loss means to this particular person. It is a kind of “empathy gap.” It’s no one’s fault. It is just inevitable. But knowing we have an empathy gap, we can choose to have compassion that goes as far as our comprehension and then something more.
Along the way, if it is indeed true that “faith, hope, and love” are “the things that remain,” then we rehearse what we really believe (faith), trust that things will be okay (hope), and cherish, cherish, cherish (love) those within arm’s reach and those who have slipped beyond. Love has no end.
While something or someone good is gone, not everything is gone.
Adapted from A Chronicle of Grief by Mel Lawrenz. Copyright (c) 2020 by Mel Lawrenz. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com