June 3, 2021

​Virtual Grief

The weight of honoring those who have died, in silence.

Robert Edwards

On April 8, 2020, 4:47 p.m., my phone rang with a dreadful message: Darren had breathed his last. As I listened to the pouring rain, it seemed as though all of heaven was weeping over the loss of a son. Sheltered in place like the Israelites, whose doorposts were primed with the blood of promise, we were forced to engage in a strange process of listening to relatives wailing in grief over FaceTime and Zoom. Many of us, including me, felt robbed of the opportunity for a compassionate touch or hug. We’d had no chance to tell Darren our final “I love you, man.”

Grief via Zoom

At time of writing the tradition of sitting by a loved one who is clinging to life is almost impossible in many places. Even though as Christians we believe in a resurrection, in times like these we are challenged by the pain of knowing that our loved one died alone. It leaves an emotional space that may be difficult to fill. Until this loss, I had never wrestled with the thought of dying alone, and the idea shakes me. Doctors in white rushing from room to room; nurses monitoring machines and checking vitals; the chair next to my bed empty. This is not what we imagine to be a comforting presence in the shadow of death. I assume that the person dying would long for a familiar face, a familiar touch, a whispered word of comfort, a cool hand soothing the brow.

Grieving via Zoom and FaceTime leaves you feeling empty and lost. There was no sitting together to reminisce, no spontaneous moments of tears, no falling into the arms of a familiar embrace, no dropping what you are doing to get there to share in the pain. For an approximation of this, you must depend on the only thing you have: a signal from a cell tower.

We are in a new normal that doesn’t feel normal. So many things have shut down: stores, businesses, colleges, airlines, weddings, concerts, churches—the list goes on. But one thing that hasn’t shut down is death. We still long for the “no mores” of sadness, sorrow, and death— but our traditional ways of coping with it aren’t available right now. COVID-19 has changed our familiar concept of the final send-off. Gone is the pre-funeral gathering. Gone is the ability even to suggest that funeral service. Gone is the procession, the singing by the gravesite, the repast meal, and the mingling. Gone is the family lingering together before the days of reality hit. Instead, you sit alone, grappling with the pain of loss and grief. Abnormal New Normal

No, in this current normal, the dying are often alone from the time they enter the hospital. And instead of comforting one another through the stages of grief, the survivors must deal with our loss alone. How do we cope with this not-normal new normal? How do we deal with the emptiness? How do we say goodbye amid social isolation? How do we find a way to grieve #AloneTogether?

A colleague of mine once asked a Rwandan pastor if they were able to recover the bodies of their loved ones who had died in the 1994 genocide. The Rwandan pastor said, “No. We aren’t able to say goodbye, and that is the worst part of our journey.” This story has resonated with me as I’ve watched my family cope with the loss of a loved one from a distance. Together we have instituted a coping strategy that has evolved from that pain, utilizing social media in ways that have enabled us to encourage one another even though we can’t be together. We’ve gathered together virtually, posted pictures of our loved one, reminisced about old times, held an online celebration communion, and planned an online memorial service.

This new normal has pushed us to form new ways of connecting during loss, new ways of walking down the path of grief together, despite the physical separation required of us. As improbable and strange as it seems, it is possible and absolutely essential. We will one day be able to support each other physically and in person again. And in that ultimate “one day,” when Jesus comes again to take us home, we will no longer need to support each other, because grief and loss will be a thing of the past. Forever.

Until then, however, we need to utilize whatever tools we can to find ways to connect so that honoring those we’ve lost, reflecting on their lives and our memories, and closure for those of us left behind can still be achieved.

This article first appeared in Conference Priorities, June 2020, a newsletter for the Southeastern California Conference. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Edwards is vice president for Black Ministries in the Southeastern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.