The Way Forward by Teresa Schreiber Werth
From the moment I slid out of my mother’s womb, everything needed to be learned. I had no context or experience. If I wanted something, I must have figured out what I needed to do to make that want known. Slowly, I began to communicate with the world-at-large and with those closest to me. It was strictly trial and error coupled with determination.
Reflecting on my 75 years since exiting Mom’s womb, I would say that I’ve become an effective communicator. I have mastered many ways of expressing myself: through my speaking and body language, through the written word and music, through physical contact and sharing my emotions. In most ways, on most days, I am comfortable in the world. I have benefitted from “white privilege” and try to be an ally in any way I can.
So, when the novel Corona Virus (COVID) appeared far away, I had time to assess the situation, to think and plan. It was a remote event, not directly affecting me, but I watched with growing concern as it spread around the world. When it became clear that the United States would not escape its wrath, I essentially found myself right back where I was 75 years ago. There was nothing in my life experience that had prepared me for the pandemic and all the ways it would affect my life and the lives of those around me.
I have been officiating at funerals for more than 30 years. One might say I felt “called” to the work, not necessarily in a spiritual sense, but I have the right skill sets. I am a good writer and public speaker. I enjoy the creative process of putting a funeral service together and, perhaps most important of all, I believe that everyone has a story—and that it is worth telling, remembering, and celebrating. Most of the funerals I have celebrated, have been for people who have lived long and full lives. They fall into the “circle of life” category, in which death is seen as a part of life. It is not always welcomed but it is expected.
Once the opioid crisis became an epidemic in the U.S. in 2017, I faced new challenges working with families who were saying goodbye to their young adult children, as a result of PTSD, addiction, experimentation, and suicide. The “circle of life” felt hideously distorted to them. I had no answers. I did my best to provide comfort in the midst of tragedy. It was the first time I had seen funeral homes needing to rent refrigerator trucks in order to handle the number of bodies waiting to be buried.
Right at the start of the COVID crisis, I saw refrigerator trucks in the parking lot of a hospital again, and I knew the pandemic was officially out of control. I knew families were suffering in new and different ways that were beyond anyone’s understanding of the “circle of life.”
As a funeral celebrant, my initial response to the pandemic was to try and address the needs of families whose loss of loved ones was compounded by not being able to be with them to say goodbye, not being allowed to gather to grieve…
Since I am not a scientist and I know the very minimum about infectious disease and how it is spread or prevented, I chose early on to rely on science. I placed my confidence in and made my decisions based on science. As a funeral celebrant, my initial response to the pandemic was to try and address the needs of families whose loss of loved ones was compounded by not being able to be with them to say goodbye, not being allowed to gather to grieve, and not being able to practice their cultural rituals around death. How to adequately meet these needs was all “virgin territory.” I had no frame of reference. No one did. But I was determined to find ways to help.
I worked to control my outrage, fear, and ignorance by focusing on the skills I had to help people navigate their loss, grief and trauma in healthy and effective ways. I validated their despair (and my own) by stepping back to try and see the big picture: what can we learn from this experience? How can we heal ourselves and help others heal? And slowly, I began to communicate with the world-at-large, meeting with families caught in the crosshairs of COVID, finding ways to tell their stories and the lives of those they had lost.
As we enter our third year of the struggle, we are still making it up as we go along. The world is still a mess, but the way forward is the same as it has always been: trial and error coupled with determination.
As American professor, lecturer and author, Brene Brown writes, “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
Photograph by Abby Arnold
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