A Guide to Grief Support During Times of Physical Distancing

Broken vase decorated with flowers and the word "joy"

During a pandemic we will have more people in our communities being touched by death, and fewer ways to support them. Here are some creative ways that congregations are preparing and supporting their members and friends.

Creating Grief Kits for Times of Physical Distancing.

Paper bag, candle, matches, stone, seed paper and a sympathy card

In a time of physical distancing, how might we respond to deaths that cannot yet be marked by gathering in person?

You may want to create Grief Kits that can be delivered to the backdoors or porches of congregants.

Our Grief Kits are paper bags containing:

  • a candle
  • matches
  • seed paper with planting instructions
  • a Joy and Concern stone (a ritual at the Fellowship I serve)
  • a sympathy card.
  • a copy of a poem (We include In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver which is often part of our memorial services)
  • a copy of the ritual described below
  • a copy of this sign:

A Simple Death Ritual

  • Gather some items that remind you of your Loved One who died. Make an elaborately decorated altar that can stay set up, or collect a few meaningful things. If other people are present, invite them to participate.
  • Add the contents of the Grief Kit from Rev. Leah and the Fellowship.
  • Take a few deep centering breaths.
  • Light the grief candle.
  • Share a few memories or stories about your Loved One. Do it out loud, even if you are alone.
  • Hold the butterfly-shaped piece of seed paper in your hand. If there are others present, you can pass it around so everyone gets to touch it. You might want to write your Loved One’s name on it, or write a word or phrase of blessing in their honor, or a quality for which they will be especially remembered. Or you can just plant it blank, either at a later time or as a part of this ritual.
  • Place the Stone of Joy and Concern in your home chalice, or some other meaningful place.
  • Read aloud In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver.
  • Take a few deep centering breaths.
  • Let the grief candle burn itself out, which will take about 10 hours (unless it is safer to extinguish it).
  • You might also choose to hang this sign in a window that is visible to the greater community.

Grief Support Groups

As the Coronavirus epidemic continues, the amount of grief we are holding—individually and collectively—feels unprecedented. We grieve for those who have died from the virus. We grieve for those who died of other causes, who we were not able to visit. We grieve for the loss of livelihood: the jobs that went away, the jobs that changed beyond recognition. We grieve for the loss of our own health, the health of others, our own abilities, the abilities of others. We grieve for the loss of all the things that were once core to us that we can no longer do. We grieve the loss of the well-being we had before the trauma we’ve endured in this pandemic. And we feel anticipatory grief: fear and sadness that attempts to prepare our bodies and our minds for the griefs ahead.

Our Unitarian Universalist congregations can hold space for this grief, even when we cannot yet gather in person. A congregation I once served, Winchester Unitarian Society, had a long-standing peer-led grief ministry that had been going on for more than a decade. I saw the power of gathering in circles with those who grieve. I saw how years of gathering monthly with others helped people move to a place of greater healing and wholeness. And I saw that it doesn’t take a professional to facilitate a group like this—just leaders who are good facilitators, have good boundaries, and have a deep familiarity with the dynamics of grief. (The UUA’s new online spiritual care course could help you know if you’re that kind of person.)

In this year of so much grief, and so little opportunity to gather in person, The Circle Way has come out with a guide for hosting Virtual Grief Circles—circles that have all the characteristics of the excellent grief support group I knew, but they happen online.

And of course, your congregation’s minister(s) and lay pastoral caregivers are excellent people to set an appointment with. Grief is such a common human experience. Even when we feel so alone, we are not. Others have been there too, or are there right now. We can share wisdom and mutual support as we move through the grief, together.