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As Pandemic Restrictions Ease, Congregants Mourn Together

About a dozen people stand on a sidewalk next to the tree they'll plan in remembrance of loved ones lost.
Jess Sheldahl
Yellowstone Public Radio
Congregants of Billings First United Methodist Church listen to Reverend Patrick Lewis before planting a tree in honor of those who have died in the past year and to recognize first responders.

COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in Montana in 2020, according to state data. Many of those who lost loved ones haven’t been able to grieve together. With the weather warming up and health guidelines easing, people are finding ways to mourn in public.

A little more than ten people and one dog gathered outside of the Billings First United Methodist Church to plant a tree. They came to remember those who have died in the past year and recognize the work of healthcare and essential workers.

“I feel this is important because we were not able to really say goodbye and mourn the way we’re used to,” said Rena Booker, whose mother died in the past year.

“And it was just because of the isolation as much as anything. She was 97 and they just... I mean we couldn’t even be with her in those last moments and so that was hard,” Booker says.

Reverend Patrick Lewis read the names of 17 congregants who passed away in the last year.

Jess Sheldahl
Yellowstone Public Radio
Reverend Patrick Lewis watches a member of his congregation fill the hole for the memorial tree with soil.

Over the sounds of nearby road construction congregation members sang and prayed together before Lewis lowered the tree into its hole.

Each person helped plant the sapling, some moving soil with a shovel, others letting a handful of dirt fall ceremoniously.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends creating memories or rituals like planting a tree as ways to process grief. The CDC also endorses connecting with other people and asking for help, difficult tasks during social distancing.

Lewis has similar advice for those who have lost a loved one.

“Let people know how bad you’re hurting and express your feelings, don’t just keep them in. It’s okay. And it’s really natural for us to move through a time of mourning, grief and loss,” Lewis says.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency can reimburse up to $9,000 to cover funeral costs for those who have died due to COVID-19. FEMA began taking applications for funeral assistance at the beginning of April.