Grieving in the Age of Covid-19

Sarah Ritchie Dealing with Loss

In her book Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death, Sarah York says, “Death is the great equalizer, but not every death is equal.”  The nearly 60,000+ Americans who have died due to the Covid-19 outbreak—and the families who mourn them—have had a very difficult death experience.  Everything about this disease and the care for the bodies of the deceased has violated what we know about a “good death.”

We are still learning much about this disease and how it is overwhelming people of all ages and ethnicities, but several aspects of how it presents have made caring for people so very difficult.  Because of the highly contagious nature of the disease, patients are literally required to abandon family members as they are brought to the hospital.  No visitors are allowed, regardless of the progress of the disease.  As many health care professionals have explained, the sickest patients are generally intubated and put on a ventilator, with some 80 percent of those people dying, without ever having been able to say good-bye to loved ones.  For, ventilators rob people of their ability to speak and patients are put into a medically-induced comas so that the machine can “breath for them.”  There are no final conversations between patients and family members.  And the very hard conversations between medical staff and family members, at the end of life, are had over smart phones or IPads, by way of video chat or Zoom. 

The care of the bodies of those who’ve passed provided another jolt to onlookers, including those grieving the deceased.  With hospital morgues over-run, refrigerated were brought the hospital’s curbside and the dead were rolled through the parking lot, gathering the attention of onlookers and the media, images never to be forgotten.  Families suffered additional burden, as proper funeral arrangements have been of the question.  Bodies are quickly dealt with at funeral homes, which are literally backed up with bodies, and hastily buried or cremated.   Families are mostly allowed to attend funerals and memorials, with others seeing services livestreamed online.  For those individuals whose bodies are not claimed, they are buried in an unmarked grave on Hart Island in the Bronx.  This speedy disposition of bodies goes against all that we know, particularly among home funeral advocates, arguing that the grief process is aided by loved ones’ ability to spend extended time with the body, between the death and funeral services.

It’s impossible to know the long-term emotional implications of the interruption of normal grief processes, experienced during the epidemic.   What offerings should be made for families whipsawed by an aborted grieving process.  Psychotherapy, spiritual advisement, and grief support groups seem like critical resources that should be amply provided for the grieving.  Jewish folks place a special importance on the year anniversary of the death of a loved one, unveiling the headstone at the grave and offering certain prayers.  Such traditions would likely be beneficial for family and friends who were unable to attend a traditional funeral service, during the worst days of the virus outbreak. 

This is uncharted territory for all.  However, many kind funeral directors and staff, not to mention mental health and religious professionals, will most certainly find creative options for the vast sea of humanity affected by this horrific pandemic.  And so it is.