Loss in the Time of COVID

When the funeral is virtual but the feelings are real.

Posted Apr 28, 2020

I am one of those people who loves funerals. Why? Because of the rituals—eulogizing the loved ones who have departed, reconnecting with old friends and family to share memories of the person we loved, enjoying laughter and love, sharing food, and most importantly, speaking truths about life, loss, and grief.

Having just attended a funeral with social distancing practices in place, I thought it would be useful to share some reflections. I would have loved to have read it beforehand! I suppose I am lucky to have been able to attend a funeral … bizarre as it sounds.

Truthfully, one of the reasons I became a psychotherapist dates back to sixth grade when a close family friend, who was just three years older than me, died unexpectedly. My parents felt it would be too difficult for me to attend the funeral so they had me stay home ... alone.

Fortunately, I had the wherewithal to call for help to escape the desolation I felt. (This was long before cell phones so calling the home of the bereaved family and tearfully asking for my mom was a big deal.) My father picked me up, and brought me to my mother’s arms. I got exactly what I needed: “sharing in” instead of “shielded from.” I spent the next five days publicly grieving with friends and family who expressed many somber moments of life being lost way too soon.

Over the years, my career as a psychotherapist has focused a lot on helping clients and their family members face death, and to grieve.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself drawn to articles about how funerals were breeding grounds for spreading germs. The normal gathering, hugs, and socializing that is a natural part of grieving with family has become dangerous. The options? Ban in-person funerals altogether, relying on Zoom instead or another platform to meet virtually. Or, limit the size of the gathering to 10 people, and maintaining a distance between participants of 6 feet. No touching. The choices, of course, feel counterintuitive in a world where connection is so important and where so much attention has been given to finding ways to reclaim closeness in our high tech environment.

As COVID became a part of our everyday-daze, several friends lost their parents. One social media post after another announced a family member who passed away. Whether these losses have been from the direct consequences of COVID or because a less direct effect of falling ill when the medical system is so overtaxed due to it, they have felt particularly profound.

On endless walks with my husband, this has been a central topic of conversation. “Can you imagine losing a family member and not being able to go to their funeral?” Or, “How do you go to a funeral for a parent and not hug the people you are closest to?” I was just having a hard time wrapping my head and my heart around this.

It wasn’t long before these conversations became our reality too. We received word that a close family member had passed away. Though she had lived long, and in some ways we were prepared for her passing, her actually being gone made the challenges of this time no longer abstract. And the ways we would normally have relied on, the procedures we knew, the calls we would make? None of it seemed feasible!

Yes, we were lucky. We lived within a car ride of the cemetery, so we actually could attend the graveside funeral. Unlike my other friends who posted about being unable to attend, to hop on a plane and be with their loved ones. Instead, they got Zoom.

The funeral was as full as one could imagine given the circumstances, but it was also surreal. The pain of losing a family member was compounded by not being able to mark it in the company of shared experience. Grateful to be able to participate, it still feels incomplete, especially for those like me who enjoy the nuances of ritual. Just 10 people allowed, no touching, no hugging, maintain social distance … love relegated to the confines of strict parameters

Even the shared anxieties were missing: worry about what to wear; the curiosity about who would show up; the receiving line; the formal service; the pallbearers wheeling the casket away as we witness together the passing from this life. The farewell faded; the period at the end of the sentence missing.

So much missing as I think. The gathering of cars for the procession, the blinking lights and funeral placards, or our walking together in whispers and quiet, letting our breath out between the service and cemetery…who knew how important all of this can be? Now, there is grief upon grief.

The new image: At the entrance to the cemetery, the hearse sits parked alone where the family gathers, a chilling metaphor about how we are living these days. Instead of getting out and hugging, we sit in our cars, deliberating about whether it was even okay to greet each other. At first there are awkward waves—the unspoken acknowledgment that we need to adhere to the rules. But after a few moments, connection prevails and we do get out of our cars, masked and gloved, greeting each other in contorted positions to imply a hug or other welcoming. Nobody knows quite what to do except to comment on the absurdity of meeting in this way. Some of us even forget to greet each other. Used to the distance already?

Driving in our separate cars to the plot, it was noticeable how many canopies are pitched, either the site of a recent graveside burial or perhaps one to come later in the day.

When we arrive at our canopy, either due to cold, impending rain, or maybe just ease, we are told we could stay in our cars for the burial and will meet after that. We sit separately in our cars and watch a burial quite different from what is usual.

We watch the workers lower the coffin into the ground. Then, they use a backhoe to fill in the dirt. Done. It Is expedient, quick, matter of fact. It dawns on me that the backhoe work is usually done after the burial ceremony, out of the sight of the mourners. Ah yes, what used to be sacred is now matter of fact.

The eulogy and prayers are beautiful, but not shared with larger community. I think of sixth grade, that I needed to be present, a part of a collective experience of grief. In this moment, however, there isn’t that opportunity.

In the end, we exchange farewells, awkwardly tilting our bodies in lieu of touch, and drive off. No shiva, no food, no common laughter or tears, we simply wave, “So long …”.

I long for the days when social distancing rules are loosened and we can return to certain forms of connection that offer and bring compassion in simple gestures, hugs and all. We will plan a celebration of life then and finish what we didn’t get to fully complete — our own individual and collective sendoff to a complicated beautiful fellow human, a family member, and a friend.

Still, in life and in death, we do what we need to do and we graciously adapt … even if from a distance.