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Ministry to the bereaved

Raylia Chadwick is a Reader at Manchester Cathedral. She shares her experience of ministry to the bereaved, having lost her son to Covid-19 in May 2020.

Jesus taught His followers to weep with those who weep and to laugh with those who laugh. So how should we, as ministers, lay and ordained, respond to another's grief in our ministry?

We ministers are made of pretty stern stuff. We face many challenges in our ministry, day by day, and generally just get on with life, trusting in God's mercy and love.

In a Covid-19 context this bereavement ministry takes on a rather distant response – masks and face shields, keeping two metres apart suggests separation, not togetherness and warm mutuality.

My adult son died from Covid in a busy hospital ward at the end of May 2020. He had been admitted to a cardiac ward with heart problems following an unsuccessful double heart by-pass. We, the family, had not seen or spoken to him since the previous March; no visiting allowed and the hospital took away his mobile phone.

Raylia ChadwickDid he die peacefully?
Who was with him when he died – if anyone?
How did he catch Covid in a cardiac ward?
Did he wonder why family never visited?
Did he realise how much we loved and missed him?

We will never know.

The powers that be have now begun to recognise the mental health cost in this and things are beginning to change. A little.

There is no 'stiff upper lip' in grief. In the church we speak of a 'dignified' response to mourning. Funeral services are controlled, dignified, and 'proper'.

I exercise my Reader ministry in Manchester Cathedral, where I have been part of funeral services. On occasions, when we have said the right things and observed the dignified, public formalities and liturgies, I have thought about Jesus weeping at the death of Lazarus (John 11:35); of the distraught outpouring of King David's grief upon the death of his son Absalom... 'O my son, O Absalom my son! My son!' (11 Samuel 19:4); and of Mary, mother of Christ. How must she have felt upon seeing her son hanging on the cross? (Luke 2:35)

There is no 'stiff upper lip' with the loss of a loved one.

Since my son's death from Covid-19 I have reflected a lot upon my ministry in all this. I see it from both sides, as the bereaved and as the minister. But then, I always have. I can't remember who said, 'All deaths diminish me...' but it's true. All deaths are our human loss, a unique and beautiful soul returned to the Father.

Being sentimental and over emotional doesn't help anyone of course. We know that. And despite our Anglican theology we don't really understand death except as a fact of life. And intellectually link it to the Resurrection. The best advice I have heard came from a Bishop's sermon. 'Don't speculate', he said.

Bereavement training often gives 'stages' in bereavement ministry, such as anger, withdrawal, and so on. I once faced a mourner so angry with God at the death of her husband she hurled a cup and saucer across the room. But 'stages' do not allow for all situations, forgetting that each person is a unique individual. So we respond accordingly, allowing whatever arises to just arise and be.

What I am finding in my own ministry to the bereaved, and also as someone who mourns the loss of a cherished son (so from my own experience), is that what is needed is someone to hug me close, someone who isn't embarrassed by floods of tears. someone whose capacity for compassion and uncritical togetherness communicates a silent understanding of the pain and grief.

Because, in the end, there is nothing to say.

And in our ministry we know the value of silence.

Social distancing makes this closeness difficult, but responses are deeply human responses that can't be stifled because they are natural. They are part of our God-given essential nature.

This is why I believe we will find a way through as we join and encompass the pain of those we mentor, love and care for in our ministry. 


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