The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unbelievable and challenging impact on all our lives.
A dear friend — and member of my church — and her husband were preparing to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Plans were made and invitations were sent. Shortly before the celebration, her husband contracted Covid, became very ill, and required hospitalization. Within a few weeks, he died.
A recent article in The Week stated: “Virologists estimate that Covid will continue to kill 100,000 Americans annually in the coming years — three times the average number of flu deaths. For people over 65, and those with conditions like diabetes, cancer, and obesity, Covid will continue to pose a serious, ever-present threat.”
The New York Times stated: “Covid is a deadly virus, especially for older people…. A worrisome pattern has emerged with Paxlovid and other drugs that reduce the severity of Covid: Many people who would benefit most are not receiving the treatments, likely causing hundreds of unnecessary deaths every day in the U.S.”
Far too many people are still not taking Covid seriously. The result is that deaths, especially among older adults, are still occurring needlessly.
I am certain readers of ENCORE Ministry Connection newsletter have their own stories of grief in the face of the COVID pandemic. The issues of grief and bereavement among older adults can be urgent ones for church leaders because congregations are graying.
Sooner or later, everyone endures bereavement — the experience of the death of a loved one. Our emotional response to bereavement is grief, a personal experience whose duration and depth can vary from individual to individual. Some people recover quickly from a loss and move on. Other people grieve intensely for a short period before finding peace while other individuals feel profound grief for years.
We’re familiar with Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who mourn”. But then he adds, “for they shall be comforted.” The second phrase can be difficult. Where can we find comfort? For some people, the problem is that life is in transition. Sometimes, without warning, life — or at least the life we have been living — stops.
I believe our society, in general, is uninformed about grief issues. To help sensitize and educate congregation members to the diverse needs of bereaving people, church leaders can share information via church newsletters, bulletin inserts, sermons, support groups, short seminars, and church school classes.
When serving a church in Pennsylvania, my congregation learned that I was teaching a course on death and dying at a local United Methodist-related college. The church council encouraged me to teach a Lenten series on this topic. I was amazed at the number of people who attended the six-week series. Everyone wanted to become better informed about the Christian perspective on death and dying.
Since every person copes with grief differently, it can be challenging to predict how a loss will affect the individual’s daily functions, the length of the grieving period, and the emotional toll.
However, there are things you can do as a church leader:
- Just be there. Many people are uncomfortable discussing death or listening to other people talk about it. As a result, grieving people often feel alone in their grief. Give the person every opportunity to share personal feelings and needs. Listen closely — i.e., active listening. Offer prayer, when and if appropriate, and remain calm in the midst of emotions that may be expressed. Offer practical help with daily tasks such as transportation, shopping, meal preparation, and housework.
- Don’t take anger or irrational outbursts directed at God, you, or the church personally.
- Permit the full expression of grief. Don’t try to talk the grieving person out of his or her feelings. The individual is dealing with intense emotions and needs to adequately express them.
- Allow time. The grieving process can take time, particularly for older adults who might be processing information more slowly or experiencing the end of a world they have known and lived for many years.
- Help the grieving person adapt. Identify the person’s strengths, including faith experiences, and help him or her find ways to re-enter life in a new, meaningful way.
- Sponsor a support group. If your congregation believes it is too small to sustain a viable grief support group of at least 10 people, consider partnering with another local congregation or funeral home.
- Conduct an annual memorial worship service to remember deceased loved ones and to help those attending experience healing from grief. You might include appropriate Scriptures, prayers, remembrances of the deceased individuals, and a short, pertinent meditation. Two ideal times during the year are the first week of November — All Souls’ Day — and the last week of May — coinciding with Memorial Day weekend.
As people grow older, it’s natural that their losses accumulate. There is not only the death of loved ones, but other types of death including the loss of friends, physical strength and stamina, job, income, and purpose. While some researchers suggest that older adults learn to adapt to grief after experiencing multiple losses, don’t assume that older adults are immune to the experience of grief. Be there for the long haul.
Dr. Richard Gentzler, director, oversees ENCORE Ministry’s mission of providing older adult ministry resources, leader training, and consultations. For more information, email Gentzler at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 615-400-0539.