REV. DR. RAYNARD D. SMITH, PH.D., IS ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF PASTORAL CARE/PASTORAL THEOLOGY AT NEW BRUNSWICK THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY IN NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ. HE IS AN ORDAINED MINISTER IN THE CHURCH OF GOD IN CHRIST.
When we regather in our houses of worship, once we can fully reopen, we will encounter a stark reality. The coronavirus has dramatically impacted the Black community and has caused unimaginable numbers of deaths. Many church members who died lived in densely populated areas and were essential workers in service industries where they were at greater risk of exposure to the virus. Many already had pre-existing conditions like diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease, obesity, and asthma, which predisposed them to contract the virus and subsequent death. Because of this, there will be church members whom we have worshipped with for years who will be missing from our congregations. Many may have been the backbone of the church, serving in pivotal leadership positions. Pastors, associate ministers, church mothers, deacons and deaconesses, other administrators and auxiliary members, and brothers and sisters will be missing from our pulpits and congregations. And thus, there will be grief and trauma to address.
Drawing upon the work of psychologist J. William Worden Ph.D., I suggest the following “prescription” to deal with the grief and trauma this pandemic has caused.
Due to the strict precautions of social distancing and restricted visitation, the coronavirus has deprived us of two vital functions funerals provide. First, paying our last respects to honor those we have shared time with and are now gone. Second, to convey our sympathies and love in support and comfort to the living.
For the most part, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the traditional ways we deal with our grief. The strict precautions of social distancing have caused a limited number of family members and friends who could gather for funerals to pay their last respects. The need to wear masks and sit in separate pews has stymied our need to embrace and support those grieving and attending to our own grief needs. Worden outlines a pathway for doing our grief work, which he calls the Four Tasks of Mourning. The implementation of these tasks will allow us to regain some sense of healing from the trauma of deaths we have sustained.
The first task of mourning is for individuals and churches to come to terms with the reality of the loss.  Members will be missing from our congregations. They may not have had the usual home-going service well associated with the Black church. The sheer volume of deaths and the unknown lingering effects of the virus have disrupted the way Black congregations have sought to respect the lives of their dearly departed. So, we must acknowledge and accept that the person is gone and will not be coming back to assemble ever again with the congregation. We will never again hear the inspiring sermons of some of our dear bishops and pastors. The voices of singers who led us in praise of God’s majesty and power can no longer rise to the rafters. Deacons and deaconesses who ushered the congregation before the throne of grace will have prayed their last prayer. Because the virus had no respect of persons, leaders will be missing from all levels of the church, from pastors to Sunday school teachers. Acknowledging and accepting the losses allows one to break through the denial that seeks to maintain the emotional bond that developed with a revered pastor, church mother, or church member.
The second task of mourning is to experience the pain of grief. This pain is literal. You can feel it in your body like an injured limb, as well as emotional and psychological pain one feels in the heart. The scripture states, “… to be absent from the body, is to be present with the Lord.” What a wonderful thought. They have returned to God, but another part of the reality is that these individuals are no longer with us. While “the saints have been enriched,” those who remain are bereft. The sadness, the pain, the sorrow must be let in and expressed.
The third task of mourning is to adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing. For the losses congregations suffer, appointments of new church mothers, deaconesses, deacons, auxiliary leaders, and even trustees will happen. Once elected to serve, they will seek to fill the vacated positions of those who have died. Their ascendancy into their new roles will secure the future of the church, staving off decline.
And finally, the fourth task of mourning is to withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship. People with whom congregations have formed strong bonds of affection will be hard to replace. However, if the ministry is to continue functioning, it will have to be willing to let go of the deceased and be receptive to new leadership. The membership—those who remain—must be open to accepting them for the unique gifts and talents they may bring, not holding them to the way it used to be.
Once we accomplish these four tasks of mourning, Black church congregations will resume our usual rhythms of worship. We will gather to give adoration to God, who has sustained us and never left us, and allowed us to come together one more time. Yes, there will be glory after this coronavirus pandemic is over, and we shall see God’s glory in its new splendor.