The COVID-19 crisis continues to impact the Princeton Theological Seminary community. To help us navigate this season, experienced counselors in the Seminary community are providing guidance on simple methods you can use to reduce anxiety and stress. We hope you find comfort and hope as you read about tips, techniques, and testimonies from members of our campus and alumni community.
This week’s reflection is offered by Rev. Dr. Melinda Contreras-Byrd, MDiv ’99, a psychologist who specializes in issues of race, gender, ethnicity, and faith.
Grief is a natural, God-given emotion that demonstrates that we have loved and been loved. By it we are enabled to process our losses, and forced to learn flexibility and risk-taking. For many it is the first time that we are faced with a situation that time and effort and even our most devout prayers cannot change.
It is in this reality-shaking experience that we truly understand that there will be no more chances to apologize, no more hugs and kisses, no more opportunity to mend a relationship. Death comes with the challenges of a process of grief wherein we acknowledge our loss, express our sadness and fear, and then rise to the challenge to begin the work of transformation.
Over time we learn to change our declarations from loss and sadness to gratefulness and joy over what we once had. The challenge of death and grief is to stay in the present and not keep looking back to what is lost, or forward to what no longer is. In the present we can see the positive — the blessings that still remain, the everlasting memories of that person and relationship.
Now, we must admit what no longer is, and then move to rearrange our lives in order to fill the newly emptied spaces. But this time of COVID-19 presents new and deeper challenges. We can no longer utilize the ways that we have successfully coped with death. We U.S. Christians express our love, unity, and respect for the deceased by participating in the rituals of church funerals. But how do we cope with death in the absence of funeral gatherings? Our unique challenge now is to question and rethink the bottom line emotional and spiritual imperatives that funerals have afforded us.
Churches have come to represent the sacred space in an unholy world, the place we encounter God and God’s people. Perhaps this pandemic has forced us to recognize that God is not confined to a building — even one that holds wonderful and unforgettable memories. We cannot contain God to a building. This is one powerful truth that COVID-19 can lead us to.
Funerals give us support through the opportunity to gather with blood relatives, church family, and close friends of ours and the deceased. We need this support, especially at this time. But we have found that Zoom gatherings can offer us some sense of this unity and support. For many of us, the altar railing and the pulpit hold special significance. In lieu of this option, a picture of the alter railing can be displayed as a background on Zoom during an online service. The preacher may also preach the eulogy from behind the pulpit, online.
We are comforted from hearing others join us in declaring the gifts and graces of our beloved one who has died. But we can ask friends to help us to create memory books that can be shipped and shared. We can meet our need for participation by creating a box of items that represent the loved one and making that the center piece of a Zoom family gathering. This new form of “home going” still offers those grieving the chance to gather, see each other, gain a feeling of unity, show their love and respect, and end with a sense of closure. During this pandemic, we must use our sacred creativity to rise to the challenges.
The grief process offers a psychological challenge. As Christians we have erroneously come to believe that we ought to be able to handle everything — and handle it well — if we are spiritually mature. Yes, we are to try to follow Jesus’ example, but here is what our “Fathers of the faith” missed in their teachings: Jesus was divine, we are not.
We are just humans relying on the power of God to work in our humanness. Until that happens in our lives, we must offer up whatever imperfect gifts of faith we have while in grief, uttering as the unnamed and desperate father of a possessed child did, “I believe Lord, but help me with my unbelief.” And we must offer up our prolonged grief, and our ongoing tears, our guilt over words spoken out of frustration and anger, and our inability to work miracles, knowing that God sees our hearts and accepts our imperfect gifts.
Lastly, we are the church universal, the vehicles of God’s power and grace — but we are earthen vessels. Times of grief and loss can lead us in many directions. But the best healing direction is toward a sister or brother. Take the risk to admit that you are not at your best, and that you need support. Let go of the false Christian bravado that “it’s just Jesus and me.” If in your focus on ministry you have lost your connection with peers who will support, nurture, and hold you accountable, this is the time to rebuild or create them.
When faith directs our journey, there is something redemptive in every plot twist. Death is part of a season. Seasons change. Winter turns to spring.
Death leads us to everlasting life, and weeping may endure for a night — but I am a witness that joy will always come in the morning!
Rev. Dr. Melinda Contreras-Byrd is a NJ state licensed psychologist who specializes in issues of race, gender, ethnicity, and faith. She is a graduate of the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology and Princeton Theological Seminary, and she presently serves as an adjunct faculty member in the Doctor of Ministry program at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. Contreras-Byrd has been a professor of psychology, Christian and pastoral counseling, and Black studies. For six years, she served as the Special Services Advisor to the Office of the Dean of Students at Princeton University and has served as Chaplain for the Hispanic Theological Initiative. Contreras-Byrd is an ordained Elder and assistant pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She is founder of Solidaridad, a mental-health/clergy wellness partnering initiative between pastors in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, where she is Dean of the AME Ministerial Institute. A poet and author, her most recent book is titled Saving the Lives of Black and Latinx Pastors: A Self Care Study (Africa World Press).