Memorials & Memory:
A Journey through Grief to Healing
by Rev. Dr. Karen Georgia A. Thompson
where the light enters the darkness
there sits the complexity
of love, pain, joy and grief
the ache for a different tomorrow
the emptiness visits
loping in to the rhythm
of time passing by as seconds
settling in to disturb a restless peace
oblivious to the space it occupies
the hollow echo of heartbeat
a reminder that life exists
even after heartbreak
the thinness of living persists
wading in angst and despair
the words sink in amidst the brokenness
sounds that at once bring life
permeating the darkness
lifting the fog, offering light
that is the beginning of healing
seconds are now days
ours the hope to navigate the silence
bereft of anger and fear
loneliness holds no power
surrender becomes an embrace
the woundedness is brittle
a liminal space providing passage
beyond the fragments
held together by tears
this too disappearing with time
KGAT • 21:55 • 17 April 2019 • Brooklyn, NY
There is a general discomfort surrounding death. Although the circle of life is evident around us in the changes of the season and the rhythms of life, people are often challenged with reconciling death and navigating the cycles of grief. Even in the church, where pastoral care includes attending to the living and the dead, language often escapes us in the aftermath of death.
The presence of Covid-19 has brought death among us in ways we have never before experienced. With the massive numbers of dead, the journey to healing is one that will require a journey from death through grief, holding the pain of loss while remembering those who died and finding ways to create memorials to point the way to healing. The pain of death does not go away, instead as we remember, we hold the loss in ways that are healing to body, mind and spirit. The memorials we create also have their place. These run the gamut of shrines built on the side of the road after accidents to monuments that grace the intersections and sidewalks of busy streets. We place pictures on our walls. We purchase plaques and we plant trees.
In this period of pandemic, memory and memorials are important.
Death Rituals in a Pandemic
The past year yielded unmitigated grief as the world experienced the illness, suffering and death caused by Covid-19. Millions have died. The world has arrived at a place where each of us is closer to knowing someone who was impacted by the virus in some way. With the escalating death toll, we are closer to knowing someone who died from the complications of contracting the virus. And, with new infections being reported daily, we know those who experienced the tolls of being sick, or we ourselves endured the varying ways the illness is manifesting among us.
Death is ritualized is a multiplicity of ways which are reflective of culture, heritage and spiritual beliefs. Humans are not monolithic in our mourning and healing, yet we all have the need to move through the process from death to healing, mourning that which we cannot change or bring back. Some fear death, while others understand death to be a part of our living. We experience death both as the pain of loss and the joy of having journeyed with the gift of life experienced in the presence of one who is dead. We cry from the loss and we smile as memories visit with us inviting us into times past - some good, some bad.
Worship communities are traversing the complexities of living through this season of health pandemic. The rituals and traditions of death and mourning have long been held in communal spaces. Funerals, wakes, repasts, visiting the bereaved, and other activities we typically engage to remember and commemorate the lives of the dead are truncated. We are unable to gather, resulting in funerals and memorial services being held on line. Attendance has been severely reduced. In some places, cemeteries have restricted the number of persons who could be present for funerals. In others, only the limited number able to attend could enter the cemetery at all, resulting in the inability to visit the graveside of those who died, yet another ritual typically observed.
We are communities in mourning, grieving a myriad of losses which has left us wounded and in need of new rituals and processes for healing. We have lost loved ones to this virus. We have seen the pain of human suffering through the symptoms of illnesses which linger at times for months. We are living through uncertainties with each day unfolding new information about this illness. We are mourning the isolation and challenges of being unable to gather. We are mourning lives, we are mourning the loss of our wellness, we are mourning radical change. We are actively grieving with few outlets among us.
We have adapted to online liturgies for burying our dead, holding space virtually for our grief, garnering strength from those we cannot hug or touch. These are moments of solace which go fleeting by very quickly, leaving us to navigate the challenges of these losses which are individual and collective.
Covid-19 is difficult for many. The trauma of living through this time of pandemic has brought to the fore the need for new ways of addressing death in our communities. Churches have the opportunity to move with their members and communities through this devastating time of pandemic. Church leaders are providing pastoral visits in person when safe and virtually. Pastors are accompanying individuals through illnesses, through grief and the processes associated with death and burial. Beyond the graveside, churches also have an opportunity to journey further with individuals in memorializing the dead and facilitating a health healing journey through the grief and loss of this health pandemic.
Remembering the Dead
I believe remembering is an important part of the cycle of life. Our memories and memorials are a way of grieving and healing the pain and trauma of loss. In the aftermath of my father’s death from Covid-19 in March 2020, we were unable to have a funeral for him. We sat in the car as workers from the cemetery removed the casket from the hearse, walked it to the graveside and placed it in the grave. Weeks later we held an on-line memorial service for friends and family to provide space for our grief and to remember his life as we tended to the wounds of our loss. We gathered pictures and told stories. We laughed and we cried. We are one of many communities, family and friends, mourning through this time of pandemic.
Months after his death, his birthday arrived. As I sat with the complex emotions of memories surrounding his life and death, I decided to write. I produced what was for me a healing ritual which can be used individually, in a small group or in worship. Coming from an African descendant perspective, I have found rituals to be an important way to journey through death and healing.
Rituals can be framed with scripture and song. They can invite pictures to be posted or accompany other actions. I am planning to plant a tree to remember my parents. When I do, it will be an action for which I will create ritual and pour water. Ritual can be a part of encouraging memory and inspiring the journey toward healing. By including periodic times for rituals of healing and memory, churches can memorialize the Covid-19 victims and invite participation beyond the members of their congregations.
Rituals are ceremonial and solemn. They are liturgical and have actions which invite participation and connection with each other. They are a way of including a process for memorializing the dead in our worship and are a creative element which can be beautifully crafted to be as personal as needed or customized to reflect the particularities of communities that are grieving. They can be written for remembering an individual or for communities to remember multiple losses - as in the case of Covid-19.
All Saints Day is a time for remembering the dead and is included in the liturgical calendar. There are other days in the calendar which can be identified for rituals of healing and memory in the life of the church. Days for remembering the dead should be a part of the life of the church more than once per year. This particular ritual can be adapted for virtual or in-person rendering. ■
Remembering the Dead:
A Ritual of Love, Healing & Forgiveness
Written by Rev. Dr. Karen Georgia A. Thompson
(You are invited to light a candle at the beginning of each section, after naming the theme. Provide time for responses as necessary. You will also be pouring libation).
We are invited to remember, to invite memory as a part of the healing we need for living. There are many who journeyed with us who are now dead - gone from this world into the next, returned to spirit from whence they came. Departure is never expected, we are never quite prepared to deal with the death of loved ones.
Our grief and mourning is a natural part of living. This ritual is about memory, about remembering the good and the bad, so that we can journey well in this life and release them to journey well in the next.
(Light a candle)
We begin with gratitude. Regardless of our relationship with those we have lost, there is something we can find to be grateful for. What are you grateful for as you reflect on the life of this person?(Pause for reflection or responses)
We thank you for giving us life. We are grateful to you for being who you were. You were authentic in your living. You taught us to live life without regrets, to take the opportunities that presented themselves and to make peace with living.
(Light a candle)
When death visits, often times we want to sanitize the memories we have of loved ones. Focus is placed on all the good things and yet, quite often, the healing we need is attached to faults that caused harm or injury. Grief is not tidy, nor are the experiences of living. What are the challenges you may have had in your encounters with the one(s) you have lost? (Pause for reflection or responses)
We lay aside your faults and indiscretions as a part of the human experience. Who among us is perfect? You leaned not towards perfection. Instead, you were willing to keep trying until you achieved the desired outcomes you wanted. You taught us: If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.
(Light a candle)
There are lessons that we hold from those who have gone on. Qualities we admire, actions we would want to emulate. Wisdom flows to us from those we journey with. Wisdom to teach, to guide and to sustain us in our lives. What have you learned? What wisdoms do you hold that were a product of this person’s presence in your life? (Pause for reflection or responses)
We give thanks for the wisdoms we gleaned from you, a thriftiness that took care of family – an entrepreneur who could turn 50 cents into thousands of dollars. Whether as a leader in the community or as truth for your life, you believed your money should work for you and not sit idle. Yup, money doesn’t grow on trees, but you knew how to make money grow.
(Light a candle)
Whether we are were wounded by someone or not, there are places that beg forgiveness in our encounters. When a person has died, we have to find ways to receive the closure we need. Forgiveness is a process, a long one, on the path to healing. What do you need to acknowledge in this or these relationships to begin the process of forgiveness? (Pause for reflection or responses)
We forgive you for the things you never taught us, and for any harm you may have caused as you walked this earth. We release any grudges we hold. We thank you for living your life your way.
(Light a candle)
Honoring is not the final chapter, We cycle through the process of grieving. We choose to give honor because of the value we place on respecting life as a work of the Creator. The created though flawed, is still to b respected. What are the ways that we can reflect the respect we have to the life of the one who died?
(Pause for reflection or responses)
Today we honor your journey in this life. We hold sacred the goodness of that journey and request that the goodness and excellence of your earthly presence continue with us. Help us as we go, guide us as you can.
(Light a candle)
Loving is hard work. Loving is also a choice. We choose to love. We choose to love. We choose to love. In the love is the hurt we feel and the missing that engulfs us when we think of the departed.What will it take for you to find your way to loving this person fully even in their absence?
(Pause for reflection or responses)
Loving you was not always easy. We did not always experience your love. We cannot hear it, nor can we say these things to you anymore. We miss you. We love you! Rest in peace.
Blessing on the Journey
Journey in peace with the Ancestor.
Amen! Amen! Amen!
23 January 2021 • 21:27 • KGAT • Olmsted Township, OH
The Rev. Dr. Karen Georgia Thompson serves as the Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the United Church of Christ. She is an inspiring preacher and teacher, sharing her skills and gifts in a variety of settings nationally and internationally. She is a published writer and poet.
Prior to accepting her current role, Rev. Thompson was the Minister for Racial Justice with Justice and Witness Ministries for the UCC. Before joining the national staff, Karen Georgia served in the Florida Conference United Church of Christ as a Pastor and on the Conference staff.
Karen Georgia earned a BA from Brooklyn College in New York, a Masters in Public Administration from North Carolina Central University in Durham, NC, and a Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York. She also studied Public Policy at Duke University and earned her Doctorate in Ministry at Seattle University.
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