It’s the first full week of “social distancing,” a new term in our lexicon that basically means “stay away from people,” in this case, by staying at home. While the death toll around the world increases, it’s easy to see where an observation about grief might fit. People are dying from a new and therefore easily communicable virus. However, this isn’t the only issue we face when it comes to grief.
While much of our lives have slowed down, changed, or paused one thing has not: loss. We are still losing people daily to non-COVID-19 circumstances. The realization that people face now while living under the dome of social distance, is that we cannot grieve or participate in grief as normal.
Even our grief must be practiced in isolation.
We cannot hop on planes or jump in cars and travel to the location of the funeral, staying in a hotel if the venue is out of town. We cannot spend time visiting with family during the aftermath of loss to hug and comfort one another. In short, we cannot carry on our typical grieving practices in the wake of social distancing. If we do, we run the risk of exposing one another, our elderly relatives, and our immunocompromised family and friends to COVID-19.
What are we to do, then, when our ability to grieve and engage in burial traditions are unavailable to us?
I don’t have answers, but I have some suggestions that may help.
Delay funerals and burials for a time.
This is not as outlandish a suggestion as it may seem. Locations with frigid winters can’t hold committal services (i.e., burials) because backhoes cannot dig into frozen ground. Families must wait until spring to bury their loved ones. iMortuary.com cites common reasons to delay funerals and burials including: finances, holidays, customs issues (if the death was overseas), holidays, and wishes of the deceased for a particular time and place for committal. Check with your religious leaders to see if this is possible if your faith prescribes immediate burial.
Skip the wake and hold virtual funerals.
If delaying the funeral is truly not possible, and you can limit the wake and funeral to a small number of people, you can use video conferencing (such as Skype, Zoom, or Facetime) to allow out-of-towners or elderly family members to participate. Locally, Catholic churches have shut their doors to masses but will permit baptisms, weddings, and funerals for a small number of people. Other houses of worship may do the same, provided their state allows such gatherings to continue. If you’re not interested in a religious ceremony, funeral homes allow services in their buildings and would probably be able to help set up a connection.
Hold a private internment and a larger memorial service later.
Having a larger gathering once life has settled into our new precautionary normal and inter-state/international travel resumes without a high risk of exposure (especially for the more vulnerable family or friends) allows mourn to gather in relative safety. You can hold a weekend-long memorial celebration that invites people to share memories and meals while remembering your loved one.
Get crafty: ask family members to create pieces that memorialize your loved one.
- Ask people to create a quilt square that expresses their reflections on your loved one (provide them the materials).
- Have people find their favorite picture of your loved one and write a short reflection on what the picture means to them. They will email both to you. Create a photo book on a photo site (like Shutterfly or Snapfish, etc.) that incorporates everyone’s pictures and messages. Even if someone sends the same picture, their reflection won’t be the same.) Give everyone the opportunity to purchase a copy for themselves or send select family members books for free.
- Ask family and friends for photos and create a collage on of the aforementioned photo sites rather than a photo book. When you gather together, ask each person to describe why they selected their photo and discuss it’s significance as they remember their loved one.
- If you are poetically inclined or you have family members who are, ask them each to compose a poem that memorializes your loved one. The poems can be read aloud at the memorial service and presented to guests, perhaps in a photobook with pictures you have all selected together.
If your loved one is cremated:
- Consider sending small vials or urns to close family and friends as a means of shared remembrance. These types of memorials don’t have to be creepy. These days, many things can be made from ashes. Companies like Spirit Pieces have a wide variety of artistic pieces made from or for cremation ash. For those who may not be at a funeral service right now, having a small piece of their loved one may help them find closure. (Do be aware that these items can be pricey, so I wouldn’t recommend you send one to every person who would have come to the funeral, only to a handful of immediate family and very close friends.)
- Plan a memorial weekend celebration that includes an ash scattering ceremony. This type of gathering will allow family and friends the opportunity to say goodbye to a loved one in a more intimate manner. Such a ceremony gives people that chance for closure
Develop an interim tradition that you can share via video conferencing.
Perhaps your family and friends can gather and read selected poems or favorite pieces of a religious text to help formally say goodbye to your loved one. If someone is a great singer, perhaps they can perform a song or hymn. And someone can deliver a eulogy. Create something that invites everyone together and that has elements of the type of funeral you would have held if travel were an option at the moment.
None of these suggestions can replace the comfort of being together with family and friends in the same space to cry together, hug, and share stories of your loved one. In-person mourning cannot compare to a virtual version. Unfortunately, our current context dictates that social distance mourning occurs.
Whatever choices you make for yourself and for your family and friends at this difficult time will be the best one for you. While the options may be limited remain confident that how you decide to proceed is right for the time. Do you best to ignore outsiders who criticize your choices; you are wading into uncharted grief waters here. Finding alternative means of celebrating funerals and memorializing loved ones may be more necessary in the future as we strive to continue protecting vulnerable members of society.
Given the circumstances in which we all find ourselves, all we can do is our best.
If one of your friends is dealing with this difficult situation, be as supportive as you can (from a distance). Do your best to empathize with them and extend compassion. Avoid making blanket statements that detract from the dual difficulties they face in grieving AND not being able to mourn with family as they would like.
If you have further suggestions for how to grieve while social distancing for COVID-19, or if you have had to implement alternative funeral plans because of COVID-19, please share in the comments below or on the ANCarroll Facebook page.
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