Grieving in the time of COVID-19

A new solidarity, different ways

Our Mennonite community of Pfastatt, France, is located five minutes from a megachurch that was one of the most significant centers of the COVID-19 epidemic at the time of a week of fasting and prayer in their facilities. For a long time, they were unfairly accused of having provoked the largest propagation of the virus in France. The mistrust of government officials with regard to Protestant churches continues.

A totally new situation

Like everyone else, we were surprised and disconcerted by the shelter-in-place order of the government. It was an unknown situation for which we had no reference point.

The church immediately felt the need to preserve bonds within our community, especially for isolated persons who were not connected to the internet. It was necessary to find new ways to support and nourish community members spiritually.

As a pastor, I needed to learn to provide pastoral care and teach people individually by phone or the internet. The fact that I was following up with recently converted young people was all the more reason to do this, since I had to wait for the shelter-in-place orders to be lifted before we could meet in person.

In order to be available and effective at each moment, the elders and deacons met every week via video conference. We organized ourselves to gather everyone’s news by sharing contacts, to offer biblical meditations each week via email or regular mail, and to encourage and nourish each person. During this time, some suffered from anxiety and depression, while others did not, but the feelings of unease were strange and previously unknown.

“We had never prayed so much before this”

A church member set up a prayer chain on WhatsApp, proving itself to be very effective. Church members said to me: “We had never prayed so much and for so many people before this!”

Another group for parents and children was created on WhatsApp to assist families in schooling their children – with daily life in confinement – and to suggest ideas for biblical teaching and organized activities. Many took advantage of this.

In spite of the situation, a week of prayer and fasting was held via a daily guide sent out by email. Some communicated their lived experience through the prayer chain group. Together, we were able to closely follow the evolving health of one of the elderly members of our assembly who was seriously ill with the coronavirus. We were able to observe the events leading to that person regaining health and rejoining family.

The pain of grieving

I officiated at two burials of people who died from COVID-19 during this time. The number of people authorized to attend was limited to a maximum of 25 and the time was limited to 30 minutes outdoors at the cemetery. Certain family members were not able to come, making the sharing of emotions and expression of grief particularly difficult.

People learned a new kind of solidarity, different ways to support each other. Some were led, in their solitude, to rediscover a personal relationship with God. They were also led to renew family worship times that they had not held for a while, times that had been missed.

At the beginning, Sunday worship via Zoom or You Tube were like a breath of fresh air. Seeing the faces of brothers and sisters gathered together and hearing their voices was a source of joy.

Nothing, however, replaces a true in-person gathering. Even with all of the orders to follow and the distancing rules to respect, being able to listen to each other sing and praise together and to greet each other has become a real luxury. Having said this, it is still not easy for everyone to return to worship.

This is a new challenge for leaders. Customs, format, teaching children – all of this requires new inventions.

Our assurance is that God is never taken by surprise and the coming of God’s Kingdom has never been so relevant.

Philippe Figuière is pastor and member of the elders and deacons of the Mennonite Evangelical Church of Pfastatt (Upper Rhine, France)

Touched by testimony

Our church (Birkenhof) is located 30 kilometers from Mulhouse, France, and we experienced four deaths from COVID-19 before August. Three of them were between 75 and 80 years old and one was 86. The burials took place outside the church or in the cemetery with a limited number of people.

Accompanying grieving families in such circumstances is unusual. The absence of members of the extended family, the church, friends, and neighbors, as well as a ceremony with a reduced format is a painful experience for those who are stricken by this ordeal. It isn’t possible for them to experience grief in normal conditions and as a consequence, the separation is even more difficult.

Gathering news, making phone calls, sending messages, expressing affection and supporting persons in mourning are very important.

On two occasions, the burial services were filmed and made available to those who were not able to attend. We were amazed by the number of views of one of these videos. Although we are an assembly of 130 members, the burial service of one member had registered 785 views before August. We venture to believe that a non-Christian public was also touched by the testimony of the deceased brother.

Luc Nussbaumer is pastor of the Mennonite Evangelical Church of Birkenhof (France).

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