In the fall of 2016, I was visiting my granddaughter, Mara, in Philadelphia where she was studying at Drexel University. Such a trip is a favorite of mine. I get to see where my grandchild actually lives and studies, so that I can picture them from afar. And they get to know that I prize the fact that they are getting a college education and that they are still connected to a caring family.
My granddaughter is a vegan, aren’t they all? But in a large city like Philly there are several wonderful Vegan Restaurants and so we had some tasty meals and took in a movie. We scuffed through dry leaves in Rittenhouse Square and strolled along the Delaware River in front of the old Navy Yard. She pointed out Ben Franklin atop the city building and I learned how to say Shoo-Kill (aka known as the Schuylkill River.)
On Sunday morning, Mara shepherded me onto a couple of buses to the large First Unitarian Church in the center of the city. There was a goodly sized and diverse congregation, although it filled only the center section of the huge building, not either side. As a former science teacher, I was amazed to find that the first minister there in 1796 was Joseph Priestly. Yes, THE Joseph Priestly who discovered Oxygen!
There was a goodly sized choir which helped a great deal when it came time to sing hymns. Congregants alone might have made a joyful but faint noise unto the Lord, I fear. And it was a joyful day because a new minister, Abbey Tennis was officiating for the first time. My family and I are indebted to Abbey for her lesson that day. I wish I had a copy of her sermon. I will do my best to recapture the concept that both Mara and I remember and have shared with others and now with you.
It boils down to this. Life hands us many situations with which we are unfamiliar, or uninformed, or unsure. One of the most difficult is interacting with someone who has recently become bereaved. Now, in this time of the pandemic and COVID, such an occurrence may be unavoidable. And isn’t it just so hard? You cannot seem to find the words that might give solace or comfort. You are uncomfortable and may start to think of excuses: maybe I should call instead, or send flowers, or wait a few days until… until what? Rev. Abby’s gave us some advice and three steps to follow:
- Acknowledge the death.
- Be present with the grieving person (not so advisable these days).
- Feel awkward.
There you have it; the heart of her message is that in doing the difficult thing you will feel awkward. Because no-one really knows what, when, or how to give sympathy easily. And feeling awkward is not a sign of failure, it is a condition shared by us all and it is okay. It is a sign that we are reaching out, trying something that is not easy and caring for something else. In our family it has become a statement that we offer to each other when someone shares that they are reaching out and trying something new. As both reassurance and celebration we say, “Are you feeling awkward?”