How do you comfort someone when you can't be with them, or touch them? For many, the natural inclination is to offer a hug, or sit alongside those who are grieving, especially in a time of grief. Our condolences come in silent actions, tearful embraces and strong supportive handshakes.
This pandemic has robbed us of the familiar ways we mourn together.
At his first socially distanced funeral last week, Reverend Roger Fitzhardinge was struck by the “terrible loss” of the comforting hug and handshake. No physical contact could be offered, and there were no finger foods shared over cups of tea afterwards. People came, sat alone, and left.
“The inability to touch other people by handshakes was a real lack,” says the senior minister of Fairy Meadow Anglican Church sadly. “It just felt very awkward to stand there and not be in contact. This is partially because physical distancing is a new normal we’re not used to, and partially because there is something embodied about grief.”
"People came, sat alone, and left"
Grief is not just an emotional state
“Grief is not just an emotional state, because we’re not just spirits on legs. Grief is physical, and so our consolation and comfort to others is physical as well.”
Mr Fitzhardinge has another funeral on the way. A beloved parishioner is facing the end of their life, a godly man involved in all sorts of community endeavours. “We would have expected to fill all 250 seats at church. That funeral will be much more difficult.”
“When we pastor our people in a time of social distancing, what are we saying about grief? We are saying that the present lack reminds us of the right yearning we have to both be comforted by each other’s presence. Maybe that makes us keener to look forward to being in the physical presence of Jesus? In a way, the loss of being able to hug people makes us long for the physical Jesus even more. The absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
"The lost of being able to hug people makes us long for the physical Jesus even more"
Comfort in things to come
Although people are now navigating new ways of comforting one another, Mr Fitzhardinge prays people would be truly comforted by something greater than a hug. “Our hope is in Jesus who died and was raised to life. It’s the reminder that our hope is not a vain hope, our hope is as true as the reality of the resurrection from the dead. As the prayer book says, ““Those who die in Christ share eternal life with him”.”
“We pray that those who are grieving would know the comfort of God’s presence by his Spirit, that in time, their grief will give way to joy. That while they grieve they'd know the consolation of God’s love through his word and through their brothers and sisters.”
"Those who die in Christ share eternal life with him”"
“We would normally counsel one another to sit with those who grieve. We can’t encourage them to do that right now. So we pray for a deeper understanding of the presence of God, who is with his people in suffering. In Psalm 23, the shepherd is with his sheep in the valley. It’s a shepherd who is not only familiar with suffering and sorrow, and who has experienced the pains of grief, it’s a shepherd who has been through the tomb and busted out the other side. And so he knows how to grieve, but he has in himself a real physical hope that we can cling onto by the Spirit. “