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A CNN report in mid-March on the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the Brazilian population was strikingly sad, especially considering the rapidly increasing availability of vaccines.

At one Rio de Janeiro cemetery – on the day of the report, March 22 – funerals were so plentiful they had to be done quickly. Each family gets “only 15 minutes to mourn,” said the reporter.

That phrase has remained embedded in my heart and mind: “15 minutes to mourn.” We all know that no time clock or playbook works when it comes to grief.

The next scene of partygoers streaming out of bars and clubs in the Brazilian capital revealed a willful ignorance or arrogance regarding the surrounding death tolls. One could but wish the club exits flowed directly into the cemetery so the partygoers could witness the tearful families being rushed in or out for their designated quarter-hour of funeral time.

Among the contributors to the worldwide death totals – and particularly in the U.S. – was and is a willingness to sacrifice lives rather than personal preferences and conveniences.

One wonders how history will treat this defining time when researchers, medical personnel and front-line workers in a range of necessary professions reacted heroically while others scoffed at both science and the need to act in simple, polite ways that benefit the common good of humanity.

During my campus ministry years, I hustled to a dorm one morning when learning a student had died during the night. He and several other students had been at my house the evening before.

After assisting administrators with contacting his family – and alerting his hometown pastor – I hung around the dorm room for the rest of the day with his stunned roommate and other close friends.

One talked and talked, often repeating himself. Another cleaned the room incessantly (probably for the first time in weeks) without saying a word. One student asked me why he hadn’t been able to cry.

Grief is very individualized, I told him. There is no prescribed way to do it “right.”

But it also has no set schedule. No one is given a designated “15 minutes to mourn.”

The past year has been particularly grief-worthy for so many. And the mounting losses are greater than even the overwhelming death totals related to the pandemic.

Frank Hawkins brings a wonderful and needed pastoral presence to this subject in his book, Down in the Valley: Our Acquaintance with Grief (2017, Nurturing Faith). He walks readers through the stages and categories of grief with a reminder of the power of hope.

“People grieve differently according to their temperament and personality,” Hawkins writes. “Some grieve openly and publicly. Others grieve inwardly and privately.”

He adds that most people grieve through a mixture of public and private expression. “The important thing is to own and express our grief so that grief does not own us.”

While grief cannot be scheduled into 15-minute segments, it can and must be processed constructively. Otherwise, as Hawkins notes, “it becomes an unhealthy dwelling place instead of a transition toward the renewal of life.”

Some people, he shares out of his decades of pastoral experience, “take longer to process their grief than others. In our busy world, we cannot schedule grief as a hurried event in the fast lane.”

As we get “back to normal” these days, let us not forget those whose grief and other suffering extend beyond the time we tend to assign for them. Our sensitivity and care must be ongoing.

We have the opportunity to continually share the love and grace that are ever-present, from the mountains of euphoria to the valleys of despair.

“Through the ages, the concept of the valley has been used as a metaphor for both grief and death,” writes Hawkins. “This is why Psalm 23 has such universal appeal. It transcends all belief systems and speaks of an experience all humans encounter: going down into valleys of pain, suffering, grief and death.”

Hawkins reminds us that the psalmist affirms that certain truths are available for such times.

“One, the source of our existence is with us in the valleys. Two, the valleys are events within the overall place created by the source of our existence.”

That place, he notes, is like a pasture where a caring shepherd guides and goes with us through all the stages of life. And even death “is not the boundary that ends the pasture.”

“In other words,” Hawkins and the psalmist assure us, “there is no place in all creation where we can be that God the Shepherd is not.”

In that assurance we find our hope – however long it might take.

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