We all face the death of loved ones at some point in our lives, just as we will all one day pass on from this life. But in our lifetimes, we’ve never faced anything quite like the issue of death, loss, and grief that we are experiencing now in this coronavirus pandemic. First, there is the terrible scale of death over a very short period of time. If we haven’t personally suffered a loss of a family member, friend or colleague, it’s likely that we know someone who has.

This pandemic is an event of enormous magnitude for our nation and for the entire world. We’ve faced past tragedies and crises, such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Sandy Hook, the Challenger, and other tragic events. Think how we responded in the face of such losses: we came together to grieve. We visited public spaces to leave floral tributes and notes. Public ceremonies and tributes honored the deceased and embraced the survivors, allowing us to  share their grief and process our own.

But this pandemic is so very different. Beyond the scope, the fact of our being largely confined to our homes imposes highly unusual constraints on the normal way that we deal with death, loss, and grief: it’s a lonely process. Hospitalized people die alone, separated from families but for brief exchanges on electronic devices and phones. Loved ones are deprived of cherished final hugs and touches. In addition to the heavy life-saving and palliative burdens that nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers carry, they must become technology enablers to help the dying share final moments with loved ones. Stories about these sad scenes are becoming common. We offer a trigger warning that this story is heart-wrenching if you are feeling fragile: A New York woman played her husband their wedding song on FaceTime as he passed away from coronavirus.

After a death, things are equally grim. Group restrictions mean that rituals such as wakes, shivas, funerals, and graveside ceremonies are constrained by the numbers that can gather. (In hard-hit Spain at the peak of the pandemic, funerals became drive through affairs. Even small normal family gatherings to share grief may be too risky. Social distancing and following health guidelines of a 6-foot perimeter deprive grievers of the usual outpouring of healing hugs, touches, and visits. The nature of the crisis truly disrupts the usual ways that we process grief and loss. People are adapting as best they can: wakes and shivas with family and friends are held over Zoom or FaceTime; remembrances are posted on social media or shared in chat rooms; funerals and graveside ceremonies are live-streamed or recorded for later.

We’ve turned to our own counselors and researched advice from grief counselors, funeral planners, and others for any thoughts or help we can glean that will help us all deal with death, loss, and grief in this difficult time. We’ll be posting about these topics in a series.

  • Today’s post will deal with funeral planning and memorials.
  • The next post will deal with grief and ways to support friends and family who suffer losses.
  • A final post will talk about coping with grief and coping with loss. this includes grief not only for the loss of loved ones, but the generalized losses we all suffer, such as the loss of the familiar and the routine and the loss of a sense of safety and security in our daily lives.

Funerals and rituals during the coronavirus crisis

The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) has excellent resources to help you deal with funerals and burials: Planning a Funeral During the COVID-19 Pandemic. They discuss how your funeral director can help, what you should expect when arranging a funeral, questions you may want to ask, and the options that are available to you during the pandemic.

They also have a blog. Here are two posts we found particularity helpful:

Loss in a Pandemic: Funeral Planning – They discuss the constraints and considerations in our current situation and the need to adapt to circumstances. They discuss technological practices that may be able to assist you in preserving your values while allowing others to participate remotely in a service, such as live-streaming services so loved ones can participate virtually in real time or recording and sharing private services; and using memorialization pages on social media and encouraging grievers to post comments or videos of their memories of the deceased.

Funerals in the Time of Coronavirus: Thoughts for Families. – They suggest that if you lose a loved one during the coronavirus restrictions, try to have an initial funeral service in a timely fashion so that you can begin the healing process. Even if you cannot be close to the deceased, they suggest a small, simple ceremony, wherever you are. They offer suggestions for leveraging technology to help include and support others and to overcome some of the limitations of the funeral service. Finally, they suggest planning a larger service or reception when pandemic restrictions are lifted.

If you suffer the loss of a loved one, check with your local family funeral director to talk over your needs and situation. Be aware that in some locations,  funeral homes are experiencing severe backlogs.  Also bear in mind that the guidelines and suggestions above are from the NFDA, but each funeral home will have different recommendations and different restrictions based on their own practices and local ordinances.

Should you attend a funeral or a wake?

The CDC says that there is “currently no known risk associated with being in the same room at a funeral or visitation service with the body of someone who died of COVID-19.” However, we know that this illness is highly contagious so the risk comes from the living. People can be contagious even if they are not showing or feeling symptoms – that’s why we’ve become a nation of shut-ins. If someone you know and love dies or experiences the death of a family member, should you attend services? You need to consider several things:

  • Your relationship to the deceased or the bereaved.
  • Your own health, age, and medical risk factors.
  • Your state or local guidelines – some states and municipalities limit the numbers that can gather.
  • Whether there are other ways you can offer tribute to the deceased and support for the bereaved.

The NFDA offers thoughts on attending a funeral if you are invited, with things to keep in mind if you are considering attending.

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