Last Friday, March 27, my sister Stella passed away, following a four-year battle with cancer. Stella was a decade older than me, but growing up we were very close—she was the oldest and I the youngest in our family. Her passing, while not unexpected, was a reminder of the fragility of each of our lives.
This death was different from any other for our family. While Stella did not have the coronavirus, due to social distancing measures we were not able to have a wake and funeral like we were accustomed to. The funeral service, held outside in a windy cemetery in the Catskill Mountains, was a beautiful and proper farewell, but it was the first funeral that I have attended where handshakes among family members, let alone embraces, were not possible. Only two of Stella’s eight children were able to attend in person – the rest, and many of her other dear friends, had to watch a livestream link. The limited attendees could only acknowledge one another with a glance and words from a distance yet still I was thankful, knowing that today many families cannot even do that much. As a flock of white doves released at the end of the funeral circled up into the cloudy skies, our prayers for all souls who are suffering and dying were carried up to God.
This uncommon service and this whole strange season have brought me to think more deeply about the Easter story. The disciples of Jesus, both men and women, could not bury Jesus as they would have wished. They had to stay away, yet they did all they could from a distance. It was fear that kept them away, not of disease, but of the persecution of Christ’s followers which seemed inevitable after the crucifixion. Yet Joseph of Arimathea showed tremendous love and care to his master by arranging for Jesus to be buried in his own tomb. It had to happen under the cover of night, and was different than what any of the disciples might have imagined. Yet all the greater was the joy of the resurrection, when Jesus conquered death. So even if we cannot be physically close to our loved ones who get sick, or bury them, we can let the pain of this separation refine us, change us, and bring us to a new life in Jesus.
Sorrow and pain are an inextricable part of the Easter story.
This Easter, as our family mourns the loss of our sister Stella, we’ll be praying for the countless families worldwide who are also grieving the loss of their loved ones, that the comfort and peace of Jesus is close to each one. We’ll be asking for the same peace for all who are anxious or distressed, and for the medical personnel and others working diligently and selflessly on the frontlines of fighting the coronavirus.
Reading Bible passages, especially the Psalms and the Gospel accounts of the Holy Week, can be a tremendous source of comfort and encouragement for all of us. I encourage mothers, fathers, young people, and children to use these days of isolation and solitude to read from the Gospels. As we navigate these truly unprecedented times, I am particularly reminded of these words from scripture, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
Sorrow and pain are an inextricable part of the Easter story. But as we prepare to face more loss in the coming days, we can take courage from knowing that Jesus experienced the sting of suffering and death in his own person, and answered them by rising from the dead on Easter morning, giving all of us the glorious hope of sharing in his resurrection.