Guiding Families through Grief in a Time of COVID-19

Mar 31, 2020 9:00:00 AM / by Rebecca Ninke

It is a complicated time to be grieving.

After twenty-some years in the pulpit, I thought I had seen just about everything. Seriously, you would not believe some of the memories flashing through my mind right now. My local funeral home frequently calls me to conduct services for families without a church home. So from a service ending with everyone spontaneously dancing to having to sing a lullaby myself with tears running down my face when the sound system tanked at a precious baby’s funeral, I figured experience and wisdom were on my side.

And then COVID-19 hit. I have felt again like I am just out of seminary, trying to figure out how things work. And like those early days in a setting unfamiliar to me, I, like you, am just doing the best I can.

From the deaths of my mom and dad, I know firsthand how important rituals for death become, how meaningful the words of funeral liturgies are to hear, how I will never sing the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” in the same way. And I remember the feeling of love and support when I was processing into my home church and I saw faces I didn’t expect—people I had known since I was a little kid, family and friends from far away, members of my birth family who came to grieve my adopted family with me. The physical presence of each person there helped my grief.

So I wonder how we support our grieving families when we are not able to gather, not able to go to the hospital to etch the sign of the cross on the forehead of the deceased as we recall the words of baptism. Like everything else, it will require creativity, heartfelt contact (even if socially distanced), and a steady word from you, church leaders, that claims life even in the midst of death.

As people connected to the churches I serve die, scheduling a service when everything has returned to our new normal is certainly an option. I fear some of those won’t actually happen, so I think churches would be wise to schedule a special memorial service for all who have died during the pandemic. For now, the choices are to hold a public memorial through the same technological options you’re using to gather remotely for worship, or to gather with fewer than ten at a gravesite or other location, taking care to follow health guidelines. Loop your church members into assistance; ask for calls, cards, and other creative ideas to let grieving families know they are not alone.

I will be honest that when a young person connected to my congregation passed away this week, I felt wholly inadequate when it came to helping the individual’s loved ones. So we remind ourselves that it’s not about us; it is simply conveying what we know however we can—that God is present in all our days, that no one ever really dies alone, and that we cling together to the hope of the resurrection.

Rest eternal grant them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.

Topics: Grief, COVID-19, Coronavirus

Rebecca Ninke

Written by Rebecca Ninke

Rebecca is an author, freelance writer/editor, and pastor.  She currently serves two churches in the Madison, Wisconsin area.  She also has two kids, two dogs, two cats, but only one husband. Rebecca Ninke teamed up with her ten-year-old daughter Kate to write the picture book, There’s No Wrong Way to Pray—a kid-friendly reflection on talking to God in the everyday moments of life. There’s No Wrong Way to Pray is available for purchase at by searching PRAY.


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