Funerals and Mourning in the Time of Covid

As a clinical social worker specializing in Loss, Grief & Bereavement, I work with individuals and families facing and experiencing the death of a loved one.

As a professional, I have tried to understand what it means for mourners to be stripped of the rituals we have surrounding death.

I have listened to, worked with and offered insight and comfort to those who have not been allowed in hospitals even to say goodbye to their loved one. To experience one’s own suffering in not being able to be with someone you love in the days and hours leading up to death, is awful. Even harder, for many, is the knowledge that their loved one, the patient, likely longed for their presence. [The nurses and doctors and social workers and other hospital staff who used their smart phones and tablets to assist patients and their families to say goodbye over FaceTime and the like, deserve our praise and appreciation.]

Compounding those losses, the sad and harsh reality that funerals are generally limited to 10 or 20 attendees, including the family, clergy and even funeral staff, and that all must be masked and maintain physical distance [except within their own bubbles], makes the acceptance of death even more difficult. Visitations, shivas, and just visiting friends who have lost a loved one have been either stripped or changed almost beyond recognition. We are not able to hug….when a hug is likely what the mourner needs most. If we do visit, we can usually stay for only ten or fifteen minutes; others, too, want to pay their respects or bring words of solace and comfort to the mourner but we have been told by our Departments of Public Health to limit gatherings to six or perhaps ten people.

In my professional role, I have encouraged those who feel so deprived of our usual rituals of mourning, to perhaps have a separate memorial service or gathering in the future, when this pandemic has either passed or has been controlled by vaccines. For some, I have encouraged them to have an unveiling [of the monument or stone] at a later date when they can remember and celebrate the loss of the deceased because the small, cut down funeral felt so empty.

In my professional role, I certainly cared for my clients and all they were experiencing.

But, this past week, it all became far too personal, when my aunt, to whom I had been very close all of my life, died suddenly three days after a sudden and unexpected heart attack. Now it was me and my family who were deprived of saying goodbye, attending a funeral, visiting the bereaved.

Had it not been for Covid!

How many times this past week did I think ‘if it had not been for Covid, then I could have…..’?

If it had not been for Covid, I would have been on an airplane within a few hours of learning that my aunt had a heart attack.

If it had not been for Covid, I could have gone to see her without worrying if I could even get a flight into the USA.

If it had not been for Covid, and I got a flight to the USA, I could have returned later without having to go into a strict quarantine for 14 days.

If it had not been for Covid, I could have been at my aunt’s hospital bedside that first evening to see her and hold her hand and tell her what she meant to me.

If it had not been for Covid, I could have been with my uncle and cousins when she died.

If it had not been for Covid, I could have been at her funeral.

If it had not been for Covid, I could have sat with my uncle and cousins for the shiva [Jewish mourning period] and remembered the good times and the sad times and the funny times….and could have experienced all that these rituals of mourning do to help us live through the first hours and days after someone has died.

So….What Did I Do? How Did I Cope?

I coped and my family coped. How did we manage? We managed through the wonders of technology. In the three days leading up to my aunt’s death, we [cousins, nieces and nephews, grandchildren] all spoke to each other by telephone and by text and email. We spoke to our uncle. We felt so connected to each other; it was a gift.

The graveside funeral was ‘zoomed’ so those attending virtually could see each other as well as those few mourners who were able to attend in person. Was it as meaningful as being there in person? For me, it was not, but still, I so appreciated that I was there at least virtually. I so wanted to reach out and give my uncle and my cousins a hug. I could not do that, but even if I had been there in person, touching would have been limited to elbows perhaps.

That evening, after the funeral, my cousins organized a Zoom shiva. There were more than 70 people on the call. Again, I felt very connected to my cousins and uncle, the mourners and I loved hearing some stories from my aunt’s old neighbours, old friends and colleagues. My cousins had been busy collecting photos the last few days and they showed us a wonderful photo collage of their mother’s life.

Now, today is the day after the funeral and after the zoom shiva. Only one week ago today, my aunt suffered her heart attack. It is hard to believe all that has happened in one week; hard to process the loss. But, that would be true even if not for Covid. That is the reality of Loss…..and of life.

Covid – 19 has changed our lives; changed our world. No where has it changed us more than in regard to death and dying. We have been deprived of almost all our usual rituals surrounding death. Those rituals, whatever they are, whatever your culture or religion or practice, give an order, a structure to our days, especially to our days and lives regarding death and dying.

We have no choice. Large gatherings of people are forbidden; we have been told not to share food; we need to stay six feet away from others; we must wear masks; we must wash / sanitize our hands.

The little choice that we do have is how we can accept the rules and regulations, which are, of course, for our safety and the safety of others, and we can adapt. We can—and will—find meaning and comfort in other ways. We can look forward to the day when we can meet and even embrace our friends; we can plan for a memorial service or other gathering to mourn our losses and celebrate the lives of those we loved.

Mchaele-Sue Goldblatt, MSW, RSW
November 2, 2020