Grieving at a Distance

The death of a student is always an incredibly difficult time in the life of a school. The death of a student, in the midst of a prolonged covid lockdown, is simply devastating.

It was a Sunday afternoon and two of our students were out for a walk. A car unexpectedly veers off the road and strikes one of them – killing him. The student was killed on the day of his sixteenth birthday. It was a senseless tragedy in every sense of the phrase.  

Our Anglican schools are wonderful communities of care but sadly this care is often most evident in times of tragedy.

When tragedy strikes, people need to come together, to be present for one another, to provide arms to enfold the grieving and a shoulder to cry on. Being in the midst of yet another lockdown, in one of the most locked down cities in the world meant being present for one another in person was simply not possible.

The student was killed the weekend after our recent Anglican Schools Conference in August. At that conference Bishop Lindsay had spoken about how our online conference gathering had been an example of ‘loving at a distance.’ Now my school community found itself having to ‘grieve at a distance.’

When grief impacts your school, it is easy to get caught up in the ‘doing’. You find yourself at the centre of things, meeting with the family, comforting students and staff, and organising the funeral service. With two chaplains working at my school and covid restrictions in place only one chaplain would be able to be involved in the student’s funeral. Given the other chaplain had taken this particular student on an overseas school trip when he was in Year 8 and knew him well, he was asked to conduct the service.

So somewhat unusually for me in a time of grief, I found myself like everyone else in my school community, feeling pretty helpless in the face of overwhelming grief.  

Watching a funeral online is a difficult experience. You are present and yet not present at the same time. Present, in the sense that you are still able to experience the service content, but not present in terms of not being in the room to cry together and to comfort one another in person. Grief is made to be shared. Grief doesn’t really work online.

I watched the livestream of the funeral along with more than a thousand people. As you would imagine it was an incredibly tough funeral to experience. My chaplaincy colleague had the difficult job of trying to bring words of comfort in an extremely challenging situation. As he stood up to share, I found myself wondering what he would say. He acknowledged the senselessness and tragedy of the event and that we all desperately wanted to know why this had happened. However, this event defied any easy answers. He then went on to say that the Christian response to this tragedy could be summed up in one word. He paused for a long time at that point and I have to confess to wracking my brain thinking of what that one word was going to be. Then he said it – Immanuel – God is with us.

He reminded us that in the midst of grief and tragedy the scriptures remind us that God is with us. God is not remote and distant to our suffering. We might not have been able to throw our arms around each other but God is gently enfolding us with his arms of love. While it might feel that way, we are not on our own in our times of grief.

A keen observer of Anglicans schools once wisely noted “we share with all schools the potential human hurt and tragedy that can so easily come in life, yet we truly set ourselves apart in the manner in which we deal with tragedy once it has occurred.[1] Our Anglican school communities do provide wonderful support in difficult times. My school did a really commendable job supporting a shattered family and devastated students and staff at the most difficult of times. It did this by demonstrating what a caring community it is and by reminding people that the God of love is present even in the most challenging of circumstances.

[1] P 52  ‘The Aftermaths of Tragedy’ in Weekly Meditations: 2011 – 2014, Heischman Daniel R (National Association of Anglican Schools: USA) 2016  

Andrew Stewart Written by:

Reverend Andrew Stewart has twenty years experience as a school chaplain and works as a chaplain at Mentone Grammar in Melbourne. Andrew is also the chair of the Chaplains in Anglican Schools network in Victoria.

One Comment

  1. Andrew Mintern
    November 4, 2021

    Thanks so much for sharing about this moving and tragic topic Andrew. The COVID limitations placed on funerals has been very hard and it has been so much harder in your state than here. blessings in your ministry.

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