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When you can’t be with a loved one who’s dying

By Rachel Dissell
Being with a loved one at their passing might not be an option right now. Don't let guilt and grief become debilitating. Getty Images

Restrictions to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus have robbed some families of being at the bedside of critically or terminally ill loved ones. 

Families and friends may feel cheated out of those final moments, adding to the complexity of their grief.

Mark Busch, a Cleveland-area funeral director with 40 years experience, said he’s helped families grapple with the aftermath of overdose deaths, accidents and suicides. How to cope with not being able to say good-bye because of a pandemic? That has been just as hard. 

“They are OK that mom died,” said Busch, vice president of Busch Funeral and Crematory Services.  “But they are not OK that she had to die alone.”

Making the best out of the connections that are possible, while still acknowledging the feelings of guilt and unfairness, can help, bereavement experts say. 

“We don’t want anyone to die alone,” said Dr. Silvia Perez Protto, who directs the Center for End of Life Care at the Cleveland Clinic. 

Most health-care facilities have found new, often virtual ways for families to say goodbye using smartphones and tablets.

For families that want the ability to sit vigil from a distance, a smart home device such as a Google Home or Amazon Echo can be set up in the room of a loved one if an internet connection is available, suggests "Death, Grief and Funerals in the COVID Age,” an online compendium of resources put together by the Virtual Funeral Collective, a group of academics who study grief. “This could allow people to not — strictly speaking — die alone,” according to the compendium.

If video technology isn’t available, a traditional phone call or audio message can be a powerful way to share a final “I love you.”

Listening to favorite songs — or even singing along together — virtually can also be comforting. 

Visiting in person

Visitation rules differ from facility to facility and are often in flux depending on statewide rules, staffing and the availability of personal protective equipment, such as masks, gowns and face shields. 

Some facilities still are restricting all visitors, while others are allowing only one family member to visit. 

Choosing who gets to be at Mom or Dad’s bedside can be tough for families, especially larger ones, Perez Protto said. 

Nurses and doctors try to communicate with empathy that the goal is to keep everyone as safe as possible, she said. 

“At the end of the day, if they didn’t get to have a normal end-of-life experience, the reason for it doesn’t matter,” Julia Ellifritt, director of education and community outreach at Cornerstone of Hope, a bereavement center with three locations in Ohio. “It still will be hard to deal with.” 

Helping children cope

For children and teens, the physical distancing requirement and the inability to visit might be especially heartbreaking. 

It’s important to acknowledge how painful and unfair that feels for them, according to The Dougy Center, based in Portland, Oregon, which provides resources nationally for grieving children and families. 

For some children, virtual visits can be especially challenging if a loved one isn’t coherent or able to communicate, Donna Schuurman, the center’s senior director for advocacy and training, said during an online training event. For small children, it could be frightening. 

When it comes to saying goodbye, try not to put children on the spot, in person or virtually, said Andy McNiel, a co-founder of The Satori Group, which provides education related to bereavement.

Instead, help children and teenagers prepare for a last goodbye by having them write down their thoughts in advance. That way, they won’t forget what is important to them, McNiel said during a webinar on grief. 

If they aren’t able to share their feelings before a loved one dies, let them know that’s OK. They will still be able to memorialize them in the future.

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