Maybe, like us, you’ve lost someone in this strange twilight of COVID-19. Or maybe the losses are smaller, trailed by the jagged, churning edges of a world pandemic. We’re not the only ones to attempt caring at a distance.
Isn’t “caring at a distance” an oxymoron? Because right now, grief feels more common than a closed front door.
It’s in the loss of a senior year. A finalized adoption. A job. Your parents’ presence at the birth of a child. Friends moving with only a virtual goodbye. A birthday without friends. The nonmaterializing internship or anniversary vacation. The flare-up of a mental illness. The kids home when you’re a single mom with zero support.
Or even a death. Maybe it’s a COVID-19 death, which is so much more than a statistic to you.
And though grief itself indeed isolates—each of us mourning our very particular losses—there is also great purpose in grieving in community.
Without that community, that collective us-against-loss, you’re likely feeling regret, guilt, even paralysis.
Author Dave Furman writes, “To show sympathy means literally ‘to shake the head.’”
Resonating in empathy together is to fully feel and display the wrongness of what’s happened, the gravity and value of what’s been lost. We reiterate, this is indeed a loss. This is worth sorrow. This is not how God designed the world to be.
Perhaps this is just one reason we’re “blessed” when we mourn (Matthew 5:4). We mourn not only with others, but alongside the ways God’s own heart breaks.
We see Jesus—who carried our sorrow (Isaiah 53:4)—manifest this in full display at the tomb of His friend Lazarus (see John 11). He’s individually and uniquely comforting Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary.
Interestingly, his own “caring at a distance” was purposeful. The sisters asked why He did not arrive sooner—but He soon proves His waiting was a product of love for them.
And at the tomb, fully aware of the history-making phenomenon God is about to perform, Jesus still interacts with their bleeding, searing questions.
And He weeps with them. In fact, the Greek verb itself elsewhere in Scripture has meant indignance, rage, and stern warning. Jesus wasn’t just sad with them. He was angry at this departure from God’s original purpose for the world, even though He voiced God’s clear intention of Lazarus’ death for His glory (John 11:4).
Jesus’ compassion must have been unmissable. People watching remarked, “See how he loved him!’” (John 11:36).
How can we make our own compassion unmissable?
Shrink the distance
Paul alludes to our need to minimize our disconnectedness amidst his own literal house arrest in Rome, where he wrote his letter to those following Jesus in Philippi: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,” he writes (Philippians 1:3). He speaks of praying for them; “I hold you in my heart” (1:7).
Because helping carry the load is how we fulfill the entirety of God’s commands (see Galatians 6:2). It’s how we love our neighbor as ourselves. How we play out the story of God reaching out to us in our own isolation from Him.
Paul did this through letters. God does this with His Spirit. How can we close the gap?
- Reach out virtually.
- Check in consistently—not unlike how Paul wrote multiple letters. Create a seamless sense of presence.
- Let creativity thrive in restraint. Paul wrote seven books of the Bible while under arrest—and they changed the world … arguably more than anything he did outside of prison. If you’re disrupted by COVID-19, be a bigger disrupter. How will you break back into people’s lives? How will the Church show up?
- read a story virtually to a child, or chat while coloring.
- call a friend who struggles with anxiety or isolation.
- share a link with an interested friend to your church’s virtual service.
- hold a virtual graduation or other ceremony.
- FaceTime wearing a giant, crazy, event-worthy hat.
- pile out of your car and wave with banners.
- host a “card shower,” gathering friends to send greeting cards and gift cards.
- leave packaged snacks on a doorstep.
- go for a socially distanced walk, keeping 6 feet away.
- have dinner together virtually.
Caring at a distance when someone dies
But what could caring at a distance look like when the loss is someone’s life? How can you virtually mourn the loss of God’s image through that person’s imprint on your lives?
- “Hug” one another’s hurt (or help them find someone who can “hug” better than you) by emotionally receiving and exchanging hurt and stories.
- “Show up” repeatedly via Facetime, HouseParty, or the old-fashioned phone call.
- Don’t ask, “What can I do?” Just do something. Or keep calling.
- Send flowers or a symbol of your support, but don’t stop there. Follow up with a personal call.
- Eat “Tear Soup” together. Say, “I’m sorry you have to live with such pain and stress. Tell me the story of what happened.” Talk only to actively listen, affirm, validate feelings, cry with them, and pray with them. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Rick Taylor reminds us in When Life is Changed Forever,
It often seems that one of the measures of a mature Christian regarding death is how much we rejoice and how little we cry … The longer we grieve, the weaker we appear. But biblical Christianity makes a distinction between “grieving” and “grieving without hope.” … Grief over loss is something natural and normal. It is something we ought to do.
When COVID-19 is over and we all emerge blinking from our doors, continue with the rituals of grief: the memorial service. The casseroles.
When you’ve been caring at a distance, the emotional gap won’t be as vast when that day comes. And your friend or family member won’t be as emotionally remote, caving in around his or her loss in solitude.
So let your care be greater than the coronavirus. Let your reaching out be as intentional as the CDC.
And together, begin to heal.
Copyright © 2020 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, on spiritual life skills for messy families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.