A family loses someone they love. But there can be no funeral as we know it. Time and again the obituary says that no services are planned.
My heart goes out to all the families who have lost someone to COVID-19, pneumonia, cancer, or any cause at all. This is new territory. Because the pandemic is adding layers to our grief.
My husband, Mel Fein, died of pancreatic cancer in August. In the months before, we were able to discuss his end-of-life wishes. I cannot imagine being unable to fully share my pain with others after his death.
During visitation and viewing, I cried constantly. It was as if any act of kindness made the tears flow. But in the current climate, tears are potentially virus-laden body fluids. I’d have to forgo the handshakes, hugs, and linking of arms that gave me comfort when words alone wouldn’t do.
The case of the families in Albany, Georgia is particularly heartbreaking. You may have heard how their well-attended funeral service was ground zero for the coronavirus outbreak in Dougherty County. Indeed, the whole world knows, because The New York Times, The Washington Post, and international press covered it. Sadly, some are blaming the retired janitor whose funeral it was for the outbreak, adding stigma to sadness. Journalists likened it to a South Georgia version of the upscale party in Westport Connecticut- just another example of a “super-spreader” event.
That analysis is too simple because it misses the intersections of race and class privilege. The man in southern Georgia was no posh jetsetter, but he was well-loved, and his family wanted to say goodbye in the right way. That, we should all understand.
Our virus mitigation strategies result in cumulative losses that both transcend and follow along socioeconomic lines. Health care workers have become surrogate family. They hold the hand of the dying person when they breathe their last, while relatives are separated by walls of glass, steel, and virus-shielding fabrics. Patients cannot always tell us what heroic measures they want done and families do not always know.
When death does come, some significant others will be relieved that they don’t have to plan a funeral. Others will be happy they are no longer expected to attend, particularly if they don’t do funerals well. Coronavirus restrictions have provided the perfect excuse.
Getting a memorial service together is hard under any circumstances, so time delays may seem a mixed blessing. But these social rituals also move grief along. Paying our respects serves as a reminder that things are out of our control and someday, we, too, will die.
For those who were already grieving before the pandemic, there are added layers as well. Losing my best friend was hard, but now close contact with everybody else is also gone. It’s sobering to be so alone in the world. My grief support group is on Zoom, which helps, but it’s still another loss of community.
The days before COVID-19 now seem like a different era. Events we took for granted in January are no more. So, time is increasingly divided between pre and post coronavirus. And all my memories with Mel are in the pre-coronavirus time. That’s clearly the past, lending a new perspective to my “life is for the living” mantra.
Being at home so much makes me realize that by throwing myself into work and social activities, I might have been running away. I paused my grief. Now I’m going into rooms I had previously stayed out of because they were filled with Mel’s things. Now I find myself redecorating and rearranging, moving this and that around.
I honestly do not know if social distancing will help us get through grief sooner or if it will only delay the inevitable. Perhaps it will have limited effects or no effects at all. I can only speak to my own experience. For me, forced solitude has given me time to think things over.
I still wonder what Mel would think of these history-making times. I’m guessing he’d think that President Trump and his Task Force are doing a splendid job. But like others dealing with the death of a loved one, I sometimes forget that I can no longer ask.