The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, discuss the subject of loss and grief

For thousands of families who have lost loved ones during this pandemic, there will be an empty chair at Christmas, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said. Speaking from his own experience of grief, he advised anyone bereaved this year to “be honest about your grief and your loss — that you miss them. Our experience has been that sometimes you are just caught by surprise. There are days that are predictable and then there are other days when suddenly something hap-pens. It happened to me a couple of weeks ago. . . I suddenly thought, what would she be like?” 

Rabbi Mirvis lost his daughter, Liora Graham, aged 30, to colon cancer in 2011. She was survived by her husband, Jonny, and children, Kinneret and Elitzur. He said: “No two bereavements are the same. If anybody comes along and says: ‘I know exactly what you are going through’, they don’t. Because grief is very personal. When one has suffered a deep loss, it is with one for the rest of one’s life. And one thinks of the person every single day, and there is sadness.” 

The faith leaders were asked about the president-elect of the United States, Joe Biden, whose first wife and one-year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash while Christmas shopping in Hockessin, Delaware, in 1972. 

Archbishop Welby said: “It’s not that he became president despite of or because of his grief. I think he will be a profoundly different president, because of his experience of grief, which is extraordinary.” 

He continued: “I think for people around this country and around the world, more than a million dead around the world, for those families, this Christmas, there will be an empty chair. And it will be painful, deeply painful. . . 

“Be kind to yourselves. Give yourself time. Talk about the person. Rejoice in what you had from them. Be honest about your grief and your loss — that you miss them. There is no harm in tears.” 

Grief was a “deep individual blow within each of us”, and required nurture to heal, he said. “Healing will come. There will be a gap, forever that sense of missing. But you will find a way in which you rebuild your life. And if you are struggling with it, get support.” 

Asked about what others could do to help the bereaved, he said: “I remember someone saying to us: ‘I’m sure you can have other children.’ Probably not the most helpful at the time.” Other friends had taken them out to dinner on the day of the funeral. “They just had us in fits of laughter which seems an odd thing. . . But it was that they loved us enough to give us that time, to help us find a release for all the strength of emotion. It was such a gift. We will always remem-ber that evening with thanksgiving.” 

Rabbi Mirvis advised: “In the course of time, those who have suffered grief are hardly likely to remember the words you’ve said. I think we should primarily focus on two things; the first is to be there, be with people, give them that support, cocoon them with the warmth of your care. Number two, practical help. What can you do to help?” 

In her sermon during the special evensong at St Paul’s, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said: “Grief is visceral; it has the capacity to consume memory, confidence, and concentration, and it becomes the unseen dancing companion on the road. Whilst, as Christians, we believe in the resurrection, it does not mean we won’t grieve. The Gospels tell us of a God who understands this. Jesus was deeply moved at the distress the death of Lazarus had caused and wept. . . Grief requires us to sit out the dance.”