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Learning to Grieve Without a Proper Funeral in the Time of COVID-19

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Honoring the dead is a critical and long-standing part of most cultures. No matter the form of ritual, remembering loved ones through ceremony allows for family and friends to give emotional support to one another and encourages mourners to face the pain of their loss. But, then came life in the time of corona, and suddenly we have found ourselves unwittingly stripped of the solace of liturgical goodbyes.

When my grandmother passed away on April 7, I had already spent much of the prior days while she was in the ICU working to convince myself the ceremony of a funeral was extraneous. Based on my faith, once she passed her soul was bound for eternal life. So, what really remained here? Sure her body was here, and would still need to be committed to the earth, but the essence of my grandmother would be gone. What then could a funeral give me that my faith could not? I would be OK. I plainly could grieve losing her without casting my tears over her casket or sharing an embrace with a woman who happened to play bingo with her 30 years ago.

Goodness. It’s amazing the things we will try to convince ourselves to avoid pain.

The presence of my feigned unconcern did not strike me immediately upon her passing. It wasn’t until her obituary posted that the extremity of my ignorance became evident. As I read the words “we will live stream the graveside services” every newly developed opinion I had dedicated myself to believing evaporated. Maybe, I could not grieve. Not properly anyway. Thanks to COVID-19, my grandmother had gotten sick alone, fought for her life in the ICU alone and died alone. (As a side note: my grandmother did not pass from the coronavirus, but died from unrelated pneumonia.) An immensely painful experience all on its own, which I was also grappling with. How now was I supposed to be at peace with her being buried alone?

Cue total breakdown.

My grandmother was 88, and I have an anxiety disorder. It’s no surprise then that I had prepared for her death long before it happened. But there was no dress rehearsal for this. In my severest disquietude, watching a loved one be buried via Facebook never crossed my mind. To be clear, I recognize that many people have experienced missing a funeral for someone they love because of cost, illness or other factors. This though, what people are experiencing now in the time of corona, this is different. This isn’t about just figuring out how to cope with your individual inability to say goodbye. This is about finding peace with not one getting to say goodbye. Me not being there is traumatic. But, me, my mom, my uncle, my cousins and even the lady from bingo that no one knows not being there — That. Is. Crushing.

I’m sure there will ultimately be many books written by qualified professionals espousing the ways we can find closure after death in the time of corona. My inner fangirl is hoping a Brené Brown Podcast episode is in the works as we speak. Until we have the wisdom of people who understand human emotion more than we do, though, what do we do? How do we say goodbye and grieve in a meaningful way? I have no idea. Sorry. But, here’s what I did or tried to do, and recommended to the people who would have come to say goodbye to my grandmother:

1. Watch the service while connected to other people who are grieving.

I have my husband and sons home with me, but my boys are little, and my husband’s history and memories of my grandmother are limited. So, I Zoomed during the graveside service with my mom, sister and nieces. Whether it’s through FaceTime, Zoom or even just a phone call, try to share the moment with someone you would have sought comfort from at the actual funeral.

2. Get dressed for the service.

Before I faced my first traumatic loss, I used to watch movies or TV shows depicting funeral services and wonder how the mourners found the strength to not roll up to the funeral dressed like I am every day of this quarantine. As life happened, though, I realized that taking the shower, putting on the makeup, getting into the black dress you found the strength to buy — it all somehow becomes part of the grieving process. So, my advice is to not skip that part. We already know that wearing business attire when working remotely can make you feel more competent and boost your productivity. It might help you feel more connected to the ceremony too and in some small way aid in grieving.

3. If it is a graveside service, send a flower arrangement and ask the funeral director to include a flower or two from the arrangement in the casket prior to burial.

We anticipated, given how far into the COVID-19 pandemic my grandmother died, that we would not be allowed to hold a service. There are things we didn’t expect though, like the fact that the funeral home would not allow us to drop anything off for the burial, including clothes for my grandmother to wear. They supplied her garments and we had to order flowers through their florist. The flowers were displayed during the live stream, but after we asked that some from the family’s arrangements be placed in the casket. That allowed us to feel at least a little like we were there with our loved one.

4. After the service, get outside if you can.

We took a family walk after the service and tried to tune into what was around us. Whether you are religious, spiritual or none of the above, nature has a way of speaking to us and offering calm and peace in times of turmoil.

5. Plan a virtual dinner or happy hour with other grieving family members or friends to recall stories about your loved one.

As painful as a virtual funeral is, the technology that allows it to be possible can also help us obtain some degree of closure. Part of the benefit of a wake or funeral is the ability to share with other people memories of the person who passed. Don’t wait for the pandemic to cease to do that. Use FaceTime, Zoom, Skype or other technology to share memories now.

6. Don’t want to group chat to share memories? Have friends and family record their favorite memory and compile them into a video to share with everyone.

This can also serve as a keepsake that you can share with younger generations.

7. Coordinate a memorial service for when the pandemic has passed.

There is no rule on how soon after a death you need to celebrate the deceased’s life. Whether we are sheltering in place for three more weeks or three more months, if you want to celebrate the life of your loved one with a memorial service when everyone can be together again, don’t hesitate to do it.

8. Do whatever it is that will help you process your loss (both of the person and the ritual of saying goodbye).

There’s no playbook for this. We are all trying to navigate unchartered waters. Take your own path. Heal in your own way. You have the power to create your closure. Let your mind, heart and soul guide you, and then do what is right for you.

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Originally published: April 11, 2020
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