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Clergy On The Pandemic Front Lines: 'How Do We Really Grieve?'

Empty pews are marked for spacing in a Manhattan church on Nov. 27, 2020 in New York City.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Empty pews are marked for spacing in a Manhattan church on Nov. 27, 2020 in New York City.

Health care personnel are not alone on the front lines of the struggle with COVID-19. Another group is the faith leaders who minister to the sick and console those who are grieving. Four faith leaders with different missions and experiences share their thoughts and feelings about their pandemic work and the burdens they bear.

Pastor Patrick Young

1stBaptist Church, East Elmhurst, N.Y.

The fourth Sunday in March of 2020 was the last Sunday we had church. I can't believe it's a year coming up. Before the pandemic, we had a congregation of about 350. The majority of our members are over 60. I've lost eight over this year, three back to back and five others spaced throughout the year. I had eight others who contracted COVID and survived.

The ones who fought through it, I couldn't visit them in the hospital. So what I did was contact their loved ones, their family members, and I ministered to them over the phone. I checked on them and let them know that we were there to support them and pray for them and talk through their frustrations.

Pastor Patrick Young's congregation hasn't met in-person for almost a year.
/ Patrick Young
Patrick Young
Pastor Patrick Young's congregation hasn't met in-person for almost a year.

I also started a "fireside chat" every Thursday night over the phone. It's for everyone in the congregation. I have a segment I call "Faith Through the Pandemic." It's my spot to allow them to vent or release the tension they've been dealing with during this pandemic, in a healthy, faith-driven, spirit-filled environment.

They can share their pain during that time. Some feel like giving up, like life is no more, so much that they are angry with God. And it is healthy for them to express it. When I come on, I highlight the idea that by sharing their feelings, they're going to be better for it.

I've been in the ministry for about 30 years, but there's been nothing comparable to this, having to go through these challenges on a consistent basis. Something is always coming up. You go home, you think you're through, and then, boom, the phone is ringing.

For me, it's been a challenging, but also a rewarding time and a growing time. I always look ahead, to how I'm going to move the church, how to provide a ministry beyond the walls. We already had an outreach ministry with our food pantry, and since the pandemic we have moved from serving 300 families to serving 2100 families. So I'm embracing a new congregation. We have been providing COVID testing and vaccinations. We've distributed coats to the community, bags of books, and toys for those children who are in need.

Rabbi Jason Weiner

Director of Spiritual Care, Cedars Sinai Hospital, Los Angeles

There has been a sustained experience of loss over the entire year. We've lost a number of patients, especially in December and January, when we experienced more loss than at any other point in the pandemic. This is such a contagious illness and with the isolation of the patients, it makes it much more overwhelming and exhausting and frustrating for the chaplains.

We have some staff who are used to seeing death, but some are not. They're dealing with stress and trauma that they haven't experienced in the past. There is secondary trauma, post-traumatic stress, however you want to call it. There is grief that is cumulative, and it gets worse and worse, and you feel it, and it's painful.

Rabbi Jason Weiner says chaplains' jobs have become more complex during the pandemic.
/ Cedars Sinai Hospital
Cedars Sinai Hospital
Rabbi Jason Weiner says chaplains' jobs have become more complex during the pandemic.

Sometimes you could just be sitting at home, and you hear a siren or something, and it could be a trigger. It's definitely severe. As chaplains, we're trying to provide support for the staff, for the patients, and for the families. So it's a triple whammy in some ways.

Our jobs are much more complex, especially in dealing with the families. They're afraid, because they can't see for themselves. Normally, you would have families at the bedside, and they would see for themselves how sick the patient is, or how they're recovering. Even if they don't understand medicine, they're there. But now, when you're trying to explain things to them, either they think the worst or they don't recognize how bad it is, or there is distrust and frustration.

When a clergy member or the chaplain walks into a hospital room, it brings out different things. Sometimes it's anger at God. You're the one they get to unleash their anger on. And our role is, OK, you know what? If you're angry at God and you want to take it out on me, I'm not going to blame you for that. Hopefully, I can model a compassionate presence. As much as I believe that God is loving and forgiving and not punishing you, I don't know if I can convince you. But if I can be a compassionate person, hopefully you can get the feeling from someone who represents religion that God is love and compassion.

Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows

Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis

The Diocese of Indianapolis actually covers about two-thirds of the state of Indiana. We have 48 congregations, an Episcopal school, many charities. My role as bishop is to care for all those clergy who are caring for lay people. There are about 150 of them who I am in touch with regularly. I know it's been a toll on them to figure out how to do ministry in a way they have not been trained for.

Who am I, as a priest, as a minister, if I can't do those things that are bedrock – showing up in person, laying hands, touching, anointing with oil? We have lots of conversations about what it means to be a minister or a priest in this time when those foundational things are not available to us. We have a call every other week, so I can just check in on them. I want to see their faces. I want to see how they're doing. As a bishop, I want to make sure they have the support they need in a very difficult time.

Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows has had lots of conversations about what it means to be a minister or a priest during the pandemic.
/ Casey Cronin
Casey Cronin
Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows has had lots of conversations about what it means to be a minister or a priest during the pandemic.

Looking at that landmark number, half a million people dying, lots of people sick, lots of people hungry, one of the things that give us purpose is that our job is to keep showing up, provide meals, help people get registered and vaccinated. Our leaders want to double down on that, because what COVID has exposed is all the inequities that we know have always been there. The impact on people of color and women in the workplace is really present to us. We're trying to figure out how to make sure we're doing that ministry of showing up and making a difference in the world.

Our theology is such that we believe God is with us always, but particularly in these difficult times. Helping people connect with how God might be showing up for them has been a conversation. For clergy, it's how we help people remember that God is present in this really, really horrendous time.

I think part of the struggle for clergy is how to do funerals. There are so many of them. How do we really grieve? I suspect that when we see a little more daylight in this pandemic, that's when the really difficult work is going to begin, because we'll have to process all the grieving we've been doing for the last year.

Sister Paula Terese Pilon, Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph

Hospice Chaplain, Cleveland Clinic, Ohio

When COVID happened and we were told not to go into homes, we had to rethink our work. We had to reimagine how to do pastoral care in a virtual setting. It was hard in the beginning to figure out how to pastorally walk with people when I can't be with them in person. I'm a people person. What I discovered was that I was actually reaching more people, because some people normally might say, "No, thank you, we don't need a chaplain," because they don't want a chaplain coming to their home. But I was able to talk with them on the phone. That's been a blessing.

Sister Paula Terese Pilon the most important thing she can provide for grieving families is to be present.
/ Brandy Lynn Photography
Brandy Lynn Photography
Sister Paula Terese Pilon says the most important thing she can provide for grieving families is to be present.

Just as important as supporting people when they are dying is supporting the family members. In our hospice care, when we talk about a patient, we're talking about the whole family. We support all the people who are involved with that person who is dying, their family, their friends, the people that are caring for them.

COVID is this disease that seemingly came out of nowhere, and suddenly people are dying from it. Some people ask me, "Where is God in all this? Why is God letting this happen to my loved one?" It's very difficult to watch people suffer like this. I called one person to offer condolences after her mother died, and she told me she was in the hospital at the same time her mother was dying, because she had COVID herself. She couldn't be with her mom when her mom was dying. It's just so sad. And there's a kind of cumulative grief that I suffer as a pastoral care person, hearing story after story about the people they've lost.

I think the most important thing I provide for families during COVID is a ministry of presence. So much of life is a mystery. So much of what is happening in people's lives is a mystery. And sometimes there aren't words. There just aren't any words. However, being present for somebody says a lot. I create a space for people to share, to talk about their struggles, what's happening, to process it. They just need someone to listen to them and validate their reality and validate their experience.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.