By Dr. Peggy Determeyer
Director, Community Bioethics and Aging Center
One of my favorite artists, Neil Diamond, had a hit many years ago entitled, “Solitary Man.” While written by Diamond, it was also recorded by numerous other artists, who lamented the absence of love, with the singer remaining a “solitary man” until he can “find one girl who loves me.” While the thought is interesting, the fact is that we are not meant to be alone. As humans, we generally need and live in community, a concept that is particularly troubling in the time of coronavirus and the need to stay apart in order to minimize transmission.
For some, this is more challenging than others. We have read the news stories about folks who are flaunting the guidelines. This missive is not to comment on them. Rather, I want to place it in contrast to those who are dying alone and the family members and friends that are unable to be with them or to grieve the death in a manner that embraces our need for community. As a chaplain, I spent time at the bedside of individuals who either had no family or whose loved ones were far away. Sometimes, the person was awake, but many time they were not. I have written before about the importance of presence at difficult times, and have argued that words aren’t even necessary.
Yet now, we find ourselves in a world where presence isn’t possible. I know several people whose loved ones have died, but for whom normal grieving rituals cannot be observed. Oh, the pain! Many years ago, a co-worker and friend died, and he specified that there was to be no gathering of family and friends to mourn his death. I felt bad, and no one felt like they wanted to override his wishes. I thought it was sad. Now we don’t even have a choice, although I suspect that there will be an onslaught of memorial services once we reconvene as a community.
We know that presence is important, so how do we grieve with someone when we can’t be present? I offer some thoughts, and they are not so different from the suggestions to manage solitude during this difficult time.
- Call or write: We still have telephones, and paper and pen. If you know that someone’s friend or family member has died, call or write. It’s not the same as an in-person hug, but it still provides presence, letting someone know that you care. I was going through some papers one day, and found the cards and notes that people had given me when my mother died in 1992. I read through every one, and remembered the comfort that my friends gave me. (By the way, I still haven’t throw them away – my husband and/or children will someday hate me for keeping those types of remembrances). Note, that the irony doesn’t escape me that I am telling you to use words, a seeming contradiction of my previous blog!
- Send or make food: People who are grieving may not have a huge appetite, but they certainly don’t feel like cooking. If you are bored, make a simple casserole or dessert. Alternatively, many restaurants are open for takeout, and they will appreciate your business.
If you are the one experiencing the death of a loved one, don’t be afraid to ask for help. The phone is a mighty tool. Use it. In the absence of being able to join an in-person grief support group, consider investigating an online group. The Hope and Healing Center is in the process of setting one up – watch our website or mailings for further information.
Whether you are the person who is grieving or ministering to someone else, and you can’t find the right prayer, follow Nora McInerny’s (author of It’s Okay to Laugh – Crying is Cool Too) advice, provided on a recent podcast interview with Kate Bowler (https://katebowler.com/podcasts/the-emergency-button/): “let the pain be a prayer.”
Be blessed, and as always, let me know if you need to talk – leave a message for Peggy on HHCI’s line (713-871-1004, ext. 570).