The ways we grieve and mourn our dead have been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a pre-COVID-19 world, when death occurred we would come together with family, friends, and loved ones to support one another during times of pain and loss. Gatherings included meaningful rituals, shared hugs, community meals, and — significantly — the lifting up of one another during the most difficult times of our lives. And then COVID-19 appeared and robbed us of the intimate, meaningful kind of togetherness that balms the soul when the heart is in grief. The ability to grieve in community was diminished, and so was the healing that comes from being together when we hurt the most.
At the University of Minnesota Medical School, our Program of Mortuary Science gathered all available resources last spring to educate funeral directors across the state on how to make the critical leap toward virtual funeral services. Although the adoption of technology, such as the use of Zoom for virtual funerals, has provided some amount of comfort to survivors who are fortunate to have access to computers and the internet, for many loved ones left behind there remains a void exacerbated by the silence and distance that comes from not being able to be together during a time of loss and pain.
Indeed, many survivors are now experiencing a phenomenon some are calling “the silent epidemic of grief” – with emphasis on “silent.” This is an epidemic of pain experienced by survivors who feel alone in their grief, unable to connect with others for any number of reasons arising from the pandemic, and who need love and support more now than ever before.
I recently heard the story of someone I will call Linda. Linda lives in the U.S., but her adult daughter lived abroad. Last year, Linda’s daughter died suddenly from COVID-19. Although Linda was eventually able to leave the states to see her daughter one last time before her burial – a heartbreaking three weeks after she died – Linda’s return to home was met with silence.
There was no funeral or memorial back at home – no chance to gather, grieve, share, and seek support from others. Linda’s friends apparently do not know what to say or do or how to act because the rituals we have relied upon in the past to reframe our lives following the death of a loved one have been interrupted by COVID-19. When people do not know what to say or do, they usually will say or do nothing at all. Grief is not shared and therefore it is not diminished.
As Linda said, “Don’t be afraid to say something to me because you think mentioning my daughter will make me cry… I cry every day as it is…. Just hearing my daughter’s name being remembered would bring me comfort.”
If we know someone who has lost a loved one – and especially if they were not able to have a funeral or a memorial for that person as a result of COVID-19 – we need to reach out to them, let them know we are thinking about them, and be present for them during their pain and loss. We need to let go of any fear we may have about remembering our beloved dead by name.
Let us deliberately and courageously reach out to those we love who have experienced loss and who are in pain. We have the power to make a difference for the better in others’ lives through our words, actions, and – most importantly – our presence. When we share with others in their loss, we bring healing and comfort to a place inhabited by hurt and pain. Let us humbly and gently share with one another in the process of grieving so that their hurt may be diminished and healing can occur.
Michael LuBrant, PhD, directs the Program of Mortuary Science at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
Last Updated April 08, 2021