By Dawn Mayer
We have been missing so many things these past months. In our family, my nephew’s wedding scheduled for March has been postponed. Another nephew’s graduation from college was done virtually with the diploma coming in the mail. Family vacations were scheduled, canceled, rescheduled and now permanently on hold. The rhythms and routines that make up our lives — we are missing them all.
But many more profound experiences have also shaped this time. In the past three months, two of my friends have died. Both of them had a few short weeks from diagnosis to death. There were no visits to the hospital, and the moments and rituals that usually accompany the death did not happen. One had a funeral “parade” drive by the family home; the other had a handful of people at a small chapel in the cemetery.
In our long-term care communities, these past months have been especially challenging. In addition to all the necessary restrictions and new protocols to keep people safe, the rhythms of everyday life have changed. As we have journeyed with our residents, they have been missing their visits with their loved ones. They have missed sitting and talking with their dinner companions. They have missed attending Mass and other opportunities to gather in prayer and fellowship. And, our residents have also known the pain of the loss of family members and friends.
In all these experiences, it has been especially disorienting to not know how to express our feelings of loss. When so many couples had to postpone wedding plans, when thousands of students did not hear their name called out at graduation, when we have all experienced the disappointment of plans not unfolding as anticipated … how do we acknowledge the loss? How can we express our grief?
I believe it is important to ritualize and acknowledge this time. On my nephew’s wedding day, our family gathered via Zoom to celebrate and honor their commitment, in hope that sometime in the near future we would all be gathered around them. The gift of technology has helped to fill in the voids of special moments. On Easter Sunday, I sat alone in my family room watching Andrea Bocelli sing Amazing Grace to an empty square at Duomo di Milano, which normally would be filled with people. I wept … partly because of the beauty of that moment and partly because it so emphasized our aloneness. It was an important ritual on that Easter day.
Especially for those who have lost loved ones during this time, the grief and loss has even been more profound. The gatherings of family and friends, the rituals of the Church which seek to cover the bereaved in comfort and peace, need to be re-imagined for this time and this moment. Our communities have begun small rituals to help our staff and our residents acknowledge their grief and loss. Names of deceased loved ones are written on angels that are placed on a tree. This ritual, meant for an All Souls’ Day Mass, is now being used throughout the year.
Prayer boards were constructed so that staff could write their prayers for their own concerns or in remembrance of a resident or other loved one. These boards were placed in public areas, as a reminder that staff are not alone in their grief. Each community is making paper bands with the names of all the residents and staff on them. As they link them together, we are reminded that we are indeed, all in this together. At a time in the future, when this storm has passed, we hope to publically burn these chains and use the ashes as we plant a new tree, reminding us that life does indeed go on and it can and will be beautiful.
Our grandchildren’s grandchildren will read about this time. Our world is being radically reshaped. We are aware of all the challenges, but there are blessings from this time, new learnings that will be upon us to incorporate. As we move forward, we will intentionally need to develop new ways to acknowledge our losses, from the simple things we have missed to the profound loss of people we love. While grief and loss are a solitary journey, it is more important than ever to help one another know that we are not alone. Brighter days will be ahead, but at this moment, we need each other to point to the places of light and hope.
Dawn Mayer is vice president of mission integration and pastoral care for Franciscan Ministries, sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago.