FOR thousands of families who have lost loved ones during this pandemic, there will be an empty chair at Christmas, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said.
Speaking from his own experience of grief, he advised anyone bereaved this year to “be honest about your grief and your loss — that you miss them.”
Archbishop Welby was speaking next to the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, in a BBC video filmed in the grounds of Lambeth Palace to mark National Grief Awareness Week, which ended on Tuesday. A two-minute silence was held during evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on Tuesday, in memory of everyone who had died during this pandemic year, and the dome was lit up, also.
Archbishop Welby’s daughter Johanna was seven months old when she died after a car crash in Paris in 1983. He was not in the car but his wife, Caroline, who survived, was in the passenger seat. Johanna was their first child; the couple went on to have five more children.
He said: “When I am asked how many children have you got, I say five because it avoids all kinds of complicated conversations. But we always think six.
“Our experience has been that sometimes you are just caught by surprise. There are days that are predictable and then there are other days when suddenly something happens. It happened to me a couple of weeks ago. . . I suddenly thought, what would she be like?”
Rabbi Mirvis lost his daughter, Liora Graham, aged 30, to colon cancer in 2011. She was survived by her husband, Jonny, and children, Kinneret and Elitzur. He said: “No two bereavements are the same. If anybody comes along and says: ‘I know exactly what you are going through’, they don’t. Because grief is very personal. When one has suffered a deep loss, it is with one for the rest of one’s life. And one thinks of the person every single day, and there is sadness.”
The faith leaders were asked about the president-elect of the United States, Joe Biden, whose first wife and one-year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash while Christmas shopping in Hockessin, Delaware, in 1972.
Archbishop Welby said: “It’s not that he became president despite of or because of [his grief]. I think he will be a profoundly different president, because of his experience of grief, which is extraordinary.”
He continued: “I think for people around this country and around the world, more than a million dead around the world, for those families, this Christmas, there will be an empty chair. And it will be painful, deeply painful. . .
“Be kind to yourselves. Be observant with yourself. Give yourself time. Talk about the person. Rejoice in what you had from them. Be honest about your grief and your loss — that you miss them. There is no harm in tears.”
Grief was a “deep individual blow within each of us”, and required nurture to heal, he said. “Healing will come. There will be a gap, forever that sense of missing. But you will find a way in which you rebuild your life. And if you are struggling with it, get support.”
Asked about what others could do to help the bereaved, he said: “I remember someone saying to us: ‘I’m sure you can have other children.’ Probably not the most helpful at the time.” Other friends had taken them out to a bibulous dinner on the day of the funeral. “They just had us in fits of laughter which seems an odd thing. . . But it was that they loved us enough to give us that time, to help us find a release for all the strength of emotion. It was such a gift. We will always remember that evening with thanksgiving.”
Rabbi Mirvis advised: “In the course of time, those who have suffered grief are hardly likely to remember the words you’ve said. I think we should primarily focus on two things; the first is to be there, be with people, give them that support, cocoon them with the warmth of your care. Number two, practical help. What can you do to help?”
In her sermon during the special evensong at St Paul’s, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said: “Grief is visceral; it has the capacity to consume memory, confidence, and concentration, and it becomes the unseen dancing companion on the road. Whilst, as Christians, we believe in the resurrection, it does not mean we won’t grieve. The Gospels tells us of a God who understands this: Jesus was deeply moved at the distress the death of Lazarus had caused and wept. . . Grief requires us to sit out the dance.”
On mourning during the pandemic, she said: “We cannot pretend that this time in the history of our world is not hard for us. We need to name the loss, give voice to our grief, speak of the uncertainty and confusion of our times. Suffering is very often a private thing. But to become more than just suffering, it needs to be shared: this is the work of lament; this is part of healing.”
Earlier this year, St Paul’s, in partnership with the Good Grief Trust, opened an online book of remembrance, Remember Me, for the thousands of victims of Covid-19 (News, 22 May). More than 6000 entries have been recorded. It is free to submit a tribute, open to people of all faiths, or none, and will be available for “as long as needed”.
The Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Revd Dr David Ison, said on Tuesday: “As the death toll to Covid-19 rises above 50,000 and we continue in lockdown restrictions, the number of people grieving grows every day. . . Every person is worthy of care and remembrance.
“At a time when we are unable to be together and grieve our loved ones, we hope that Remember Me, and the work that St Paul’s is doing with the Good Grief Trust, will help bereaved families and friends during their darkest moments.”
The chief executive of the Good Grief Trust, Linda Magistris, said: “We know there is a tsunami of grief as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The impact of a bereavement, even under normal circumstances, can be devastating and life-long; yet hundreds of thousands of people have been grieving in isolation this year, which may have a profound effect on their mental and physical health.
“National services have been overwhelmed. Through signposting to over 800 bespoke and local support services, the Good Grief Trust provides help and hope to anyone affected by grief under any circumstance, anywhere in the UK. When St Paul’s is lit up, it will shine like a beacon to remind grieving families that they are not alone.”