Funerals in the COVID-19 era: Loss without Ritual

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When you can’t have a traditional funeral it’s a cruel, double loss. This is where we are now.

If you have been drawn to this post then perhaps you have just suffered a terrible loss, and won’t get to celebrate your loved one’s life and mourn your loss with the funeral that you and they might have wanted.

And if that is so, I’m sorry.

This post is about why funerals matter, what might be different without one, how that might affect you, and ways to help yourself through it.

Why are funerals important?

We have always had rituals around death. We need them. They help us to mark our loved one’s life, to celebrate it, to hear about what they meant to other people, to tell those people what they meant to us.

We are good at funerals in Ireland. We use them to give and receive support. To make the difficult, sometimes traumatic loss of our loved person just a little easier, a little more bearable.

Funerals make our loss real, which is terribly painful, but also necessary for eventual healing. We remember the things people said and did, the stories we heard. We cling to them and we are grateful. It is the beautiful comfort that humans can provide to each other in our darkest, most painful hour. It is exhausting, but good. We know this in our hearts. We dread the funeral in ways, so many ways. But when it’s done, there is a strange sense of achievement, of relief. It is the beginning of closure. And for the 2 or 3 days of ritual, we are not alone, not isolated.

How will this feel different?

When we don’t have a funeral we are cheated out of the “normal” way to access and feel this support. We don’t get to have our friends witness our loss, they can’t help us say goodbye. Our hands will be empty of anothers’. Our friends, colleagues and neighbours can’t be there to shake our hands, squeeze our arm, wipe our tears, hand us tissues.  We will ache to be held not just by our lost loved one, but by our living loved ones. And apart from one or two, if we’re lucky, that’s not available to us right now.

You’ll have probably been to a funeral before so you know these things to be true. But this is different, and so you will need more support, because you are human. Your grief will probably feel heavier, because you can’t share it in the way you might have imagined. If your loved one was dying for some time, you might have had ideas about how the funeral would be, who’d be there, who would hug you and hold you, who you could sit and cry with. Who might even make you laugh with a brief but welcome distraction.

If it’s a sudden death, you’ll still have had ideas about what might happen, just because we all have an idea of how funerals go in Ireland. But that’s gone for now. This will be different and it will feel different. So you will need, and you deserve extra care.

How to self-care during the funeral:

  • It’s important to make one of your own ritual. Your funeral director will do their best to ensure that as much as possible will remain as it always does. The part that’s missing is the other people.
  • If you choose to have a funeral streaming or recorded, make sure you have a copy of it. You can do this using Zoom or one of various other platforms. (Get someone else to do this for you, ideally the funeral director. Now is not the time to take on new tasks).
  • Make sure that you have a copy of all the messages and emails that may be sent to you (again, ask someone to do this for you).
  • Something you might like to do later is print them out and keep them to read when you need to feel the closeness of friends but don’t feel able to talk on the phone or make a video call. Our ability to manage technology, indeed any task, is affected by grief. It’s likely that you won’t feel like doing any of that for a while, so you’ll need to find other ways of feeling connected. And please, do stay connected.
  • Keep souvenirs of the service that you get in the funeral home and later, at the graveside or crematorium. Maybe press some flowers and keep the little cards. Perhaps a pebble from the graveside, or a blade of grass.
  • See if anyone can take some photos for you to keep and later, if you want to, you can show them to other people whom you wished could have been there.
  • These days, a lot of the deaths we are experiencing are unexpected. You might be experiencing one of these losses, and you may not have gotten to see your loved one before they died. Maybe they were isolating, or you were, and so you might feel a huge sense of regret over things unfinished, unsaid. You might be upset that this person may have died alone, scared and bewildered. You might find you are overwhelmed with these thoughts, and fears that it may happen again to another person close to you. It’s important that you remind yourself that this is normal and ideally, talk to someone about these thoughts.
  • It might help to try and finish these unfinished conversations. You might want to write your person a letter, or a text, or an email. This might feel upsetting, even overwhelmingly so. But if you think it will help, and it possibly will, go ahead. Make time for this kind of thing over the next few weeks. Your grief deserves time – indeed it will demand your time. This is why we so often feel stretched, exhausted when someone dies. Even if we are not working.

Because we are working. Grief is hard work, and when there is no funeral the burden of that work won’t feel shared.

  • Also important are the ‘normal’ things like sleeping, if you can, eating even if you’re not hungry, exercising, even though restricted or isolating.

What is normal during this abnormal time?

Death, while natural, can feel traumatic and unnatural, and we are often surprised at how we are affected by it. Some of the things that might happen for you (and your child) over the next few months are:

  • Rage
  • Guilt
  • New fears and anxieties
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Sudden crying
  • Irritability
  • Reduction in performance at work/school/college
  • Resentment
  • Exhaustion
  • Headaches
  • Physical pain
  • Stomach issues
  • Shaking
  • Anxiety attacks
  • Difficulty concentrating

These sound scary but they are normal reactions to abnormal events. And a COVID19 related death, or death in isolation, or death without a “normal” funeral is most certainly abnormal. And so you will likely need extra support, more than you thought you’d need.

  • Please practice self-compassion, and again, know that what you are experiencing is normal for your situation.
  • Please feel OK about accessing professional help if you are struggling. A lot more people are accessing psychological supports now. And a lot of them are available online for free or reduced fees. (See below).
Online support is more readily available now

If you have children:

1. Children might have different concerns when there isn’t a funeral. They might be worried that if there isn’t a “proper” funeral their loved one won’t get into heaven, or will be cross or upset. They might feel guilty that there’s no “real” funeral, even though it’s not their fault. Children tend to view the world through a lens that tells them they cause things to happen. So they will need reassurance that none of this is their fault, and that there is nothing wrong with this way of doing things, it’s just different.

2. They might not understand why their friends can’t come, or why they might not be allowed to see the body themselves. It’s best to be direct and honest with children about these things if they ask, so that they don’t make up alternatives in their little heads where they (or, less likely, someone else) are somehow to blame.

3. Allow children to be involved somehow in the service that you have. These might be:

  • Allowing them to talk to the camera if you are live streaming.
  • Allowing them to have cards or letters put in with the coffin, to write their own stories and memories on the virtual memorial book, if you have one.
  • Make a memory box where all these things can be kept together print outs of mails, text, keepsakes, maybe some of your loved ones small belongings, their scent or favourite soap, or watch, or bracelet… you can decide together what goes in this box. You can decorate it together, or your child might want to do it themselves. This is another way to introduce ritual.
  • Encouraging children to read out their own stories at the service would be very meaningful for them. They are more used to technology and will likely have a sense that their reading is being witnessed depending on their age and level of experience with technology- perhaps more readily than the adults present. But the really important thing is that they do it if they want to. It’s part of the ritual and it will give them a sense of empowerment and control in a situation where they have none.
  • If the children cannot attend, and many won’t be able, then it’s important to keep a record. Assign someone to take charge of documenting what happens, perhaps photographing the funeral home, the laptop, the graveside, the crematorium. We often need to see to believe.

The knowledge that we have witnessed something helps us to deal with that something.

4. Children will see that you have what looks like very little support. And so they may feel they need to mind you. This is normal after a family loss, but might be exaggerated if there is no traditional funeral where the child can see you being held and spoken to.

So we need to reassure children that we do have support, it just looks like we don’t. Let them know that your job is to mind them and not the other way around. Maybe show them your phone if you have messages of support coming in. This is not to hide your pain, rather to show that you are in pain, and you are getting support from friends and family even though they’re not there in person. This will give your child permission to also be in pain.

We teach children how to grieve by grieving.

Here are some resources to help you get through these next few months.

For children:

 * https://emergingminds.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/COVID19_advice-for-parents-and-carers_20.3_.pdf

* https://www.winstonswish.org/attending-the-funeral/

* https://www.barnardos.ie/resources/bereavement

For you:

IAHIP & IACP are the two main professional bodies for psychotherapists and counsellors in Ireland. You can search by location for therapists and  https://www.therapyhub.ie/ are temporarily listing  counsellors who are offering online counselling for free on their site for the duration of this COVID19 crisis. A lot have signed up.

Sadly, cruelly, we must grieve a little differently. Mind yourself well.

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