“As a family we always expected that Dad would die slowly of health complications, that we would sit with him in his final hours, singing some of his favorite hymns from the Psalter Hymnal,” said Karen Brouwer Vlieg.
Brouwer Vlieg’s father, John Vlieg, died suddenly and unexpectedly in early April in a care home without a family member present. His wife, Mae, who lives with supported care in an adjacent building in the Elim Retirement Village in Surrey, B.C., had not been able to visit her husband of 59 years. Brouwer Vlieg, her mother, and siblings are just one of many families who had to plan a service for a loved one during this COVID-19 time. Brouwer Vlieg and her parents are members of Fleetwood Christian Reformed Church in Surrey.
“I also grieve not having the memorial service I had imagined,” Brouwer Vlieg said. But what the Vliegs did experience was the immediate support from their pastor Tom Bomhof and others. Although the care home was in a strict lockdown protocol, Bomhof was able to connect with Mae, Karen, and her out-of-town siblings via phone calls and online meetings, providing pastoral comfort but also tending to the immediacy of planning a meaningful way to honor John’s life.
The first decision was whether to postpone a service until such a time as the family could gather. The Vliegs decided to go ahead with a service. It was important to the family to have the service within the church building, a representation of John’s long commitment to his church communities. The family was able to prepare Scripture readings and reflections, choose songs, and provide a memory table for use in a livestreamed service. The pastor and musicians were in the sanctuary. Because Mae was not able to leave her care home, her children decided they would join the service from their respective homes as well. The service included participation of the children and grandchildren (one of whom lives in the USA, unable to attend), by video.
In a March 8 CRC Network post, Cecil Van Niejenhuis, recently retired co-director of Pastor Church Resources, provided early advice for pastors and councils about funeral protocols. He encouraged church leadership to have conversations prior to a situation arising. It allows for “a decision being made on the basis of thoughtfulness and prudence, rather than being driven by the heat and urgency of a death in the church community.”
Bomhof was just one of many pastors benefitting from this early advice. “The Vlieg service was early on in COVID(-19) practice, and we were just beginning to adjust. There were provincial guidelines in place, and we were not allowed any people in the sanctuary at the time. For the family, it was hard not being together at a time when they really wanted and needed to be. Grieving families need hugs and touches, and COVID(-19) took that away from them, adding to their grief,” Bomhof said.
Eldean Kamp’s husband Len passed away in May within a week of a cancer diagnosis. The Kamps are members of Trinity CRC in Abbotsford, B.C. Their family’s situation was similar to that of the Vliegs: an unexpected passing in a time of pandemic restrictions. The Kamps, too, were supported and worked together with their pastor Andrew Vanderleek. They also decided on a service in the church with only three family members present. The livestream service included family video components. Kamp has a son and daughter who, with their families, live in the USA. Despite the travel restrictions she is grateful for the ways in which technology provides unexpected opportunity and blessing. The recorded service has had almost 700 views, a reminder to Kamp of the widespread community that supports her.
Vanderleek noted that the Kamp family decided not to open up the sanctuary to the currently allowable 50 people. A subsequent funeral at Trinity CRC did have 50 people present for the service.
Retired pastor Martin Contant was invited to preside over a service for an elderly person from Immanuel CRC in Langley, B.C., a congregation currently without a pastor. The family decided to have a graveside memorial with plans for a service at a later date when family living in the U.S. might be able to cross the border. Contant provided support and guidance via phone calls and video calls. The interment, where attendance was limited and physically distanced, was livestreamed by the funeral home.
Bomhof, reflecting on this COVID-19 time, said, “This affirms for me the value of rituals of grieving. Even if it has to be severely modified, a funeral or memorial service is an important part of the grieving process.”
“Even in these unusual times, I still get to be the bearer of the good news,” said Vanderleek. “God is the one who gives comfort and hope.”
“Pastoring is in essence a ministry of presence,” said Contant. “We are able to hold open a space for family members to reflect on God’s presence, and their experience of God’s presence, as seen in the life of their loved one.”