By Maggie Finley
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lent we just finished will be remembered for years to come as an ironically appropriate frame for this unprecedented event.
Among the dizzying array of online prayer and worship communities I have seen, one that stood out was from my faith community’s outreach minister, Kim Cockcroft. Kim reflected on the ancient word Lent and its meaning “to lengthen.” She spoke of the lengthening of days literally and figuratively, and how of necessity we’re forced to reorder our lives inside and out. The response to the virus demands we change the way we use time, whether at home or on the front lines. I agree with my friend that this is not only a time of lengthening but also a time of stretching. The pandemic is forcing us to stretch beyond the boundaries of what used to be normal toward a renewed understanding of our interdependence.
A significant stretch at my house began with my mother-in-law’s death on March 9, not due to the outbreak but during it nonetheless. At 96 years of age and after nearly six months on hospice care, she died peacefully in her sleep. My husband and I didn’t relish the thought of air travel from our home in Washington state, the first epicenter of coronavirus in the United States, to St. Louis, where his mother and other family members lived. My husband did make our flight plans, but ultimately, the family agreed to postpone the funeral, to our relief.
A couple days later, the immediate family opted in favor of a farewell viewing, since the body was to be cremated. My husband’s youngest sister suggested we participate virtually and asked if I’d do the commendation. My husband said this felt “weird.” Then I had the kind of talk with him that reminded me of the delicately painful (precious) conversations I had with newly grieving parents in the NICU. I asked what he meant by “weird,” but he said little, while his body clearly communicated he wanted to shake it off. I let him know I’d honor whatever he wanted to do, but that I believed — as hard and strange as it might seem now — that at some point in the future, he’d probably be glad to have seen his mother and had an opportunity, however imperfect, to say goodbye.
The family went ahead with the plan, and my doing the commendation, even from a distance, seemed to be of some consolation. My husband (thankfully) was able to shed some tears, and after leaving the video meeting we quietly processed together. He conceded that much of his reluctance was actually more about the fear of seeing his mother’s appearance in death. But her face was serene, and the clothing for her “shroud” suited her style. I think had he not been able to see that, even on a computer screen, he would have always wondered about it.
As he tells others the story of his experience, even though he still says it was “weird,” I also hear him say we’re living in novel times and we may be challenged to find new ways to respond to life’s situations. Having the technological option to be connected to his mother’s death was better than nothing. And personally, I look forward to a time (as I’m sure he does) when we’re all assembled, able to touch one another physically and emotionally to express our grief in community – as family.
Maggie Finley, BCC, is a retired chaplain from Providence Hospice of Seattle.