Reimagining Ritual: Compassion During a Time of Crisis

Reimagining Ritual: Compassion During a Time of Crisis

In the wake of a global pandemic, nearly half a million people in the United States and close to 2.5 million people have died globally. Well beyond what anyone could have imagined, this pandemic has presented unique health and social challenges for all of us. This has certainly been the experience for those of African descent living in the United States.[1] Facing illness alone during a global health pandemic and social upheaval is both complex and challenging. As caregivers, those responsible for providing some form of spiritual, psychological, emotional, physical, and medical care for others, this year has been plagued by trauma, grief, and loss. Additionally, contending with fears around personal, familial, and community safety due to a lack of personal protective equipment or managing moral injury when the “right thing to do” feels incredibly inhumane eventually takes its toll. Further, expanding our imaginations in a way that allows us to sit with people as they find the language and create meaningful rituals that address the compounded trauma and grief that have made it difficult to breathe, feel, mourn and heal, at times, feels like an impossibility. 

A year into the pandemic, even those who have not lost loved ones to COVID-19 feel the effects of isolation and stress. Alongside the health and social challenges presented during this crisis, people of faith are also attempting to navigate their way through a spiritual or religious crisis. During times of challenge, many turn to their communities of faith for guidance and support. This may be especially true for grief, loss, and death. Death is looming in the social and religious consciousness at a time when we have been forced to deal with our loved one’s death alone or from a distance. During this pandemic, every death is a COVID-19 death, and many deaths have taken place with no family at the bedside. 

Death and distance are two things that one might consider antithetical to the culturally-oriented reactions and death practices to which many are accustomed. At this seemingly impossible intersection, I sit as a Spiritual Care Practitioner. As an ordained minister serving in the role of Chaplain at a Level One Trauma Center, I have witnessed the devastating effects of COVID-19 on families. I have conducted virtual visits with families unable to be present while “Big Mama” is in the ICU. I have held the hand of mothers who have experienced a fetal demise alone. I have stood at the door of the trauma bay as the medical staff attempted to resuscitate men as their families stood outside the hospital doors because protocol did not allow them inside.  

People of faith embrace gathering with their community of faith as an essential part of life. These gatherings include everything from worship services to funerals. We gather for fellowship and for participating collectively in rituals that provide meaning for our lives. As the world struggles to gain some normalcy, the church is coming to terms with the fact that many of the rituals to which we were accustomed can no longer be practiced – at least not safely. Rather than forcing situations that may be unsafe for the sake of tradition, churches will need to find creative ways to engage in ritual and meaning-making. This will likely require training for many churches. It will also require introspection. Are we willing to do things differently or will we remain boxed into traditions that do not provide the healing necessary to help us through this crisis? Without the proper resources in place, the next pandemic we must face will be unresolved grief. 


[1] A disturbing trend is evident in the U.S.: People of color, particularly African Americans, are experiencing more serious illness and death due to COVID-19 than white people. Coronavirus in African Americans and Other People of Color | Johns Hopkins Medicine

For Reflection and Discussion

  1. Individual’s and communities’ ability to cope with loss varies. Social and cultural factors impact that ability. For many, the compounded grief experienced during this time will require care beyond prayer and Scripture. What are some steps your congregation has taken to be equipped to provide grief support today and in the future?
  2. Funerals help people find a kind of “closure” needed during the grieving and mourning process. How can our imagination help us reimagine death and dying rituals that allow for mourning? How can we teach ourselves to be more open to the Spirit’s creativity?
  3. Pastors and leaders are experiencing significant burnout during this pandemic as they are experiencing the same loss as their congregations. What steps have you taken as a leader to address your own grief?
  4. Scripture is replete with characters who provide stories of grief and mourning that can be used in exploring how people respond to loss which might prove helpful when the congregation gathers for worship. How do you imagine mining the text to normalize grief within your congregation?