Three weeks ago, a beloved deacon in the church suddenly died. His death occurred on a Tuesday morning, so the church was reliant on word of mouth and funeral notices on its website for spreading the news. Even so, the parish ministers were certain the visitations and funeral would be full, and they planned accordingly: three visitation periods and a full funeral Mass in the large church. Then, on Friday before the Saturday funeral, statewide decisions regarding the need for physical distance because of the COVID-19 virus were released. Immediately, the visitation structure was drastically changed, and the deacon’s funeral was redesignated as being for family only.
Sadly, safe practices to avoid spreading a deadly virus meant that the deacon’s family would not have the support of the myriad others who loved and had been touched by him. These same safety practices meant that an entire parish was denied the possibility of publicly mourning his loss, participating in the healing nature of the funeral Mass, and physically supporting his family. The natural grief elicited by the deacon’s natural death was heightened by the unnatural requirement of so-called social distancing.
We Americans are a multicultural and diverse blend of people whose familial and social backgrounds help shape the ways that we grieve. Nonetheless, however diverse Americans are, we share a natural human inclination to come together after a death and share our grief. A funeral is a venue for acknowledging the new grief and changed family situation that naturally occurs following death. The funeral is not an experience of closure but rather the opening up or beginning of a mourning process that people learn to integrate into their lives. Closure is a mythical idea with little basis in reality.
In this time of pandemic fear, funeral services—so important to mourning as a community—are being limited in many states to no more than ten attendees, including the officiating persons. So, people are denied the natural functions of social support and group mourning that funerals offer. And, like the parish I mentioned above, they will deeply miss this opportunity. The grieving family particularly will miss the opportunity to be enfolded lovingly into the community as the bereaved.
If a great number of people die from the COVID-19, these circumstances of socially suppressed group mourning because of physical distancing will be made worse. But it doesn’t take a lot of deaths to see how the loss of funeral mourning hurts even one family.
Fortunately, we can do some things to help bereaved families and ourselves while being safely physically distant:
- Make phone calls of bereavement support to grieving families. Let them know how the person’s death is felt as a loss in the world. Ask what you can do to be helpful at this difficult time. Be sensitive to the reality that some bereaved people may not be comfortable with video calls at this time; let their preferences lead.
- Send cards and letters. Email is good and USPS “snail mail” is even better as people often want the tactile experience of opening, handling, and reading the messages repeatedly or storing them in a keepsake box. If you don’t have formal sympathy cards, just create one yourself with a blank card or simple notepaper. Handwriting (even bad handwriting) is more personal than typing, but typing is better than nothing.
- Use the deceased person’s name often, and talk about his or her special qualities when talking with the family.
- Have flowers or a live plant delivered to the family. Or, send a coupon for food delivery to them as cooking is not always easy for grieving people. Offer to mow their lawn with your own mower to keep physical distance. Go to the grocery for them and deliver to their doorstep.
- Mark your calendar NOW to check on them in two weeks and again in two to four weeks and again several weeks later. Bereaved people will sorely miss the normal outpouring of support that comes with death, and the isolation of social distancing will make that loss worse.
- Be gentle, kind, and thoughtful of yourself and other mourners, too, as you will miss the deceased individual and will need support for your own grief.
- When the strict guidelines about physical distancing are lifted, personally visit with the bereaved family.
We can avoid some of the damage that physical isolation causes by remaining socially close while being physically distant.
Finally, remember that it is never too late for a memorial service even post-funeral. Ceremonies and rituals help us when we have no words or other means to express the depth of our losses.