The article below was shaped by a Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) Sprint on “Death & Dying Among Friends During Covid-19.” We’d like to thank Sprint Members David Morrison, (Lancaster Meeting); Tedford Taylor (Yardley meeting); Michael Kachur (Friends of Philadelphia Montly Meeting); and George Schaefer, (Abington Meeting) who also serves the community as PYM’s Care & Aging Coordinator.
The extraordinary challenges and circumstances the Covid-19 pandemic presents for societal practices and rituals around death and dying have created considerable concern and confusion among Friends and other people of faith.
The disruption of Friends traditional practices of worship and business while introducing new opportunities for virtual gatherings also trigger feelings of grief and loss. It is important to acknowledge the collective grief we all share at this time with the cancelling of life as usual: our plans and our expectations of how our lives are to unfold have been irrevocably disrupted.
In this light, Friends burial and memorial practices need to be carefully reviewed to ensure that good pastoral judgment errs on the side of safety and care for vulnerable persons, defined as current (up to date) by public health officials.
Most Friends Meetings in PYM care for historic burial grounds and aid with funeral and burial arrangements for deceased members on their property. In coordination with families and meeting elders (pastoral care and worship committees) Friends hold memorial meeting for worship to celebrate the life of departed and beloved members usually several weeks or months after death.
Meetings will need to respond to issues of death related grief and mourning at a time when social/physical distancing and large group gatherings are discouraged. Plans for doing this remotely will need to be put into place by every meeting.
We will need such a plan to minimize the number of decisions needed to be made at a time when medical and public health information about Covid-19 is sparse and a large of number of variables regarding its treatment and spread remain unknown.
Friends should understand that remote memorial meetings during these times may differ from celebrations of a long life well lived which these events usually tend to be. Again, a pastoral care response which involves deep empathetic listening, compassion and loving-kindness toward members of meeting and family survivors will be crucial to helping Friends process what may become unresolved grief for their loved ones and the meeting itself.
Creating opportunities to express grief and sadness for the survivors and their friends and others to receive direct support from meetings, in the form prepared meals and personal visits will need to be carefully structured and monitored to ensure everyone’s health and safety.
Pastoral care issues related to the outbreak which will challenge Friends
The topics listed below are a few of the issues facing pastoral care providers at this time which will require new strategies for reaching out to Friends in need of spiritual support:
- Hospital prohibitions against visitors, both family and pastoral care;
- Hospice limitations which prohibit community farewell-vigils;
- Complicated grief response, if loved ones die without friends or family around;
- Protracted communal grieving associated with prolonged, and often unresolved, (existential) questions and concerns experienced by survivors.
Resources for End of Life decision making during the Covid-19 pandemic
Below is a partial list of resources which can help guide Friends during this time:
- Friends Testimonies and End of Life Decision Making (pamphlet)
- Quaker Aging Resources (website)
- FFA Executive Director Susan Hoskins interview with Ted Taylor of Yardley FM, Directory of Chaplaincy Program RWJF Hospital. (video)
- Quaker Meetings Response to Coronavirus by Katie Breslin, Friends Journal 3/20 (article)
Uniting in Grief & Sadness: Helping one another in sickness and grief
The following query from Quaker Faith & Practice (Britain Yearly Meeting) is offered for consideration as Friends across our yearly meeting develop practices to support one another during the pandemic. If you have experience providing bereavement or other types of counseling to help the grieving, please contact George Schaefer, PYM Care & Aging Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Could this be the path to a new sense of unity, the community of those who had known pain, and thence had found depth, so that creeds and traditions became but signposts to an acceptance of sadness and an entry into a depth where we found harmony with each other? Was this the way forward to a deeper unity with people of other religions or indeed of none? Perhaps we could start with the simple discovery that words divide and sadness unites.” — Robert Todd, 1989