Sara Barton on Grief Deferred: Death, Dying, and Family Funerals During Coronavirus

Image: Photo by Erez Attias on Unsplash

By Sara Gaston Barton, who is the Pepperdine University Chaplain.

Two weeks after my mom died, my community was impacted by a tragic mass shooting, followed hours later by a devastating wildfire. My job as a chaplain meant that I served community members who lost friends in the shooting, were personally traumatized by violence, lost homes completely, or were displaced from their homes for months or even years. The list of sadness and devastation still ripples on and on today. Chaplains show up during crisis and grief. It’s central to what we do.

During that time, however, my personal grief of losing my mom was deferred, crowded out by emergencies. I essentially put my grief on hold, something I didn’t even know could happen before I experienced it for myself. People who have lived through similar tragedies may be able to identify with how the urgency of the immediate demands every waking moment.

Because of my experiences with grief deferred, I have been thinking about the many grieving people who are forced to defer grief during COVID-19. Around the world, thousands upon thousands are experiencing loss due to the virus, as well as deaths unrelated to the virus. Many were not able to be with their loved one or get closure in their last moments due to hospital restrictions and have not been able to gather and mourn with family and communities of faith due to physical distancing measures.

I’ve also been thinking of the people who personally knew the beloved souls who were tragically killed in recent months and whose pictures, names and videos they see on the news. Thousands of people knew George Floyd, Breonna Tayor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Elijah McClain, but they did not get closure with them and many friends and family were not able to be at memorials due to travel restrictions. And in all this grief, folks have not been able to see their priest, imam, pastor, or rabbi. They haven’t been able to feel the arms of a friend around them, or stand by a graveside with family members. Grief is already a lonely journey, and now it is exacerbated by the pandemic.

I have been reflecting on my own experience with deferred grief, and I want to share a few stories from that season to describe how I eventually found my way through personal grief in the midst of communal crisis. I hope these reflections, borne of personal trial-and-error, will help someone else work through grief during this lonely time.

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Source: Christianity Today