The COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful in ways that many people have never before experienced. The extended length, level of uncertainty, and changing nature of the pandemic have led many to a place of exhaustion as we enter a season of re-opening (according to NPR, If Your Brain Feels Foggy And You’re Tired All The Time, You’re Not Alone). Church members and leaders alike are eager to be together in person. A lot of life has happened while we have been connecting mainly through FaceBook, email, and Zoom. And, some of it has been really hard. How can our communities of faith be places of healing where our grief is seen, acknowledged, and held in the presence of God?
Emotions Happen in the Body
As we begin to consider how our worship services, Bible studies, Sunday school classes, and youth group gatherings can be sensitive to the individual and collective losses of the pandemic, it is important to acknowledge that emotions are a full body experience. Sadness is not simply a cognitive experience, it manifests as a watering of the eyes or a tightening of the chest or a desire to curl up. Likewise, joy might feel like a swelling of the chest or the desire to sing, dance, or jump. As we explore ways to be sensitive to the range of experiences each of us have lived through in the last year, song, movement, art, writing, storytelling, centering prayer, and other forms of embodiment can be part of the healing process.
Note: For more on the subject of how emotions and trauma are held in our bodies, I highly recommend The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk and My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem.
Practical Ideas for Grieving Together
1. Name The Losses
In a recent episode of the Dare to Lead podcast with Brené Brown (How We Return and Why It Matters, author Priya Parker said, “naming is the most powerful tool we have as facilitators.” Explicitly naming and acknowledging the loss and difficulty of the pandemic normalizes the grief and other emotions we are experiencing. It can help people feel safe, at ease, and seen. We can do this often and in a variety of ways from prayers to sermons, newsletters, individual conversations, and as we begin meetings or formation events.
For example, I might start a meeting by saying, “It is so very good to be with you in person and to see your faces. I am feeling so grateful to be fully vaccinated and so excited to start regathering. I’m also aware children and folks living with compromised immune systems still need to mask. And I’m feeling deep grief about many of the losses of the past year. I’d like to hold some space before we start the business portion of our gathering to just acknowledge the mixed emotions some of us my be experiencing. Let’s keep a moment of silence and if anyone feels called, please share with us how you are feeling about all of this today.”
2. Tell The Stories
Another way to invite folks to name the losses is through story sharing. Michelle Palmer used pandemic stories from The New York Times to spark story sharing with her youth group (read about this activity here). During prayers of the people at story church, the Rev. Miranda Hassett invites the congregation to create a prayer garden by adding rocks for the griefs or things heavy on their hearts, flowers for thanksgivings, and candles to lift a particular person up to God. Another idea is to create a large paper tree and have people write pandemic stories on the leaves that they attach to the limbs.
3. Pray with the Body
As we pray, we can invite people to connect with their bodies. This can be as simple as inviting people to place a hand on their heart as you offer a prayer. Here are a few additional ideas:
- Walk a labyrinth (resource here)
- Use prayer beads (resource here)
- Integrate some American Sign Language into your prayers (here’s a tutorial on signing The Lord’s Prayer)
- Teach a body prayer. Here’s a simple body prayer using the words “Be still and know that I am God.”
- Invite people to become present by noticing something with each of their senses: one thing they can hear, see, smell, feel, and taste (this is a simplified version of a grounding technique used for anxiety).
4. Invite Creativity
Art can be a very meaningful way for people of all ages to process their experiences and tell their stories. It is especially helpful for kinesthetic learners and pre-verbal children. Here are a few ideas:
- Paint together! Here are some tips from Roger Hutchinson, author of The Painting Table: A Journal of Loss and Joy.
- Praying in Color offers ideas, guidance, and templates for coloring your prayers.
- Stations of the Cross: Pandemic Hope by Mary Button (prayer cards or 11 x 17″ prints) includes a prayer and a reflection question for each station. They could be used to inspire original artwork on the topic of the pandemic.
5. Sing Your Grief & Hope
Singing connects us to our bodies, to our emotions, to God, and to one another. As we begin to sing together again (following the guidelines of your Bishop, congregational leaders, etc.), we can use music to help us reconnect and heal. Here are a few ideas.
- Carefully select music for worship with an eye toward healing.
- Hold a service of healing or service of remembrance for those who have died of COVID-19 that includes music.
- Integrate music (especially singing) into as many gatherings as possible from Children’s Chapel to finance meetings – don’t be afraid to try a cappella.
- Specific song suggestions:
- Dona Nobis Pacem, Hymnal 1982, 712
- God is Love And Where True Love Is, Hymnal 1982, 577
- There is a Balm in Gilead, Hymnal 1982, 676
- There’s A Sweet, Sweet Spirit In This Place, Wonder, Love, & Praise, 752
- Taste and See, Wonder, Love, & Praise, 764
- Peace Before Us, Wonder, Love, & Praise, 791
- Bless the Lord My soul, Wonder, Love, & Praise, 825
- Ubi Caritas, Wonder, Love, & Praise, 831
- O How He Loves You and Me, Lift Every Voice And Sing, 35
- Spirit Of The Living God, Lift Every Voice And Sing, 115
- It Is Well With My Soul , Lift Every Voice And Sing, 188
- Check out Music that Makes Community for support and more ideas!
An Important Reminder
It is important to remember that the pandemic has not impacted us all in the same ways. It has been a universally difficult experience AND being isolated is not the same as experiencing job loss, food insecurity, or domestic violence. All the losses matter, we need to mourn even the small ones. We also need to be on the look out for folks who are struggling with significant trauma, depression, anxiety, etc. and help connect them with mental health professionals.