Coping with grief when a traditional funeral isn’t possible
A few weeks before the country started to shut down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Mark Busch’s 87-year-old father died.
The fourth-generation Cleveland funeral director described John Busch’s send-off as an enormous gathering of family members and funeral industry folks from Ohio and across the country. They “laughed, cried and memorialized” one of their own.
Not long after that, as COVID-19 restrictions went into effect, Busch was faced with telling families that Busch Funeral & Crematory Services could no longer provide them with a similar experience.
“I had to think, ‘Where would I have been in my state of grief if I could not have had my father’s funeral?’” Busch said. He and his brother's 115-year-old family business focuses now on what kind of funeral services a family can have – not what they can’t do, he said.
‘Disruption’ of customs
Funerals serve a myriad of purposes.
They assemble support as families face the finality of death. And they create a space to share stories and celebrate a person’s life and community impact.
“When done well, funerals can be therapeutic,” said Kenneth Doka, a contributing author of Dying and Death: Life & Living.
“When not done well, they can complicate the grieving process.”
The disruption of memorial customs — as funeral gatherings are limited, postponed or altered — is anticipated to create a wave of delayed grieving, according to Julia Ellifritt, director of education and community outreach at Cornerstone of Hope, a bereavement center with three Ohio locations.
“We are going to have a whole community of people who didn’t get the experience they needed,” Ellifritt said. “It’s yet another huge loss.”
Many bereavement centers plan to offer special counseling and support groups for the unique issues connected to unresolved grief due to the pandemic.
Inevitably, some families whose loved ones die unrelated to COVID-19 will feel somewhat disenfranchised — as if their loss means less, said Doka, a senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America.
Doka’s 93-year-old aunt died in her home on the day after the 9/11 attacks. He remembers the funeral officiant commented that her death wasn’t tragic. For the family, though, the loss was profound.
The same feeling, he said, may surface for families whose loved one dies from a non-COVID-19-related illness.
“They may not feel the same level of support,” he said.
Some families delaying services
While some families have moved forward with virtual memorials, whether on Zoom, Facebook Live or private funeral home webcasts, others have opted to wait, Ellifritt said. One funeral home she has worked with is holding the remains of 50 deceased loved ones until their family members can hold a more traditional funeral service.
Busch said about 60 percent of the families he has worked with have opted to hold a smaller private service, some with a virtual component such as a livestream. The rest are planning future memorials, often to coincide with birthdays, wedding anniversaries or other special days. Countless news articles are already noting the emotional toll on bereaved families.
It’s important for people to know that they can do something — like a virtual or small, distanced service — but if they still want the real thing later, they can just wait, said the Rev. Amy Greene, head of spiritual care at the Cleveland Clinic.
Greene participated in a virtual funeral and sat shiva with the family over Zoom recently, she said. From her attic office she watched the silent togetherness and listened as a rabbi eulogized his mother.
“In its own way it was quite powerful,” she said. “But for many it will always be second best.”
In grief, physically being with people matters, she said. Losing the ability for that closeness — a warm hug, a hand to hold — can feel inadequate and add up to a larger feeling of loss.
Unresolved grief, under normal circumstances, is already a contributor to so much of our stress. She’s seen it show up physically, such as headaches and gastric issues that people don’t realize were connected to bereavement or loss.
Society’s collective grief
In some ways, we are all experiencing a “slow drip” grief fueled by many losses — loved ones, jobs, graduations, routines.
“The collective grief — it’s just huge,” Greene said. “It piles up over time.”
Doka, the author and hospice consultant, said grief complicated by the mountain of losses and uncertainties is likely to lead to more anxiety and depression, even some post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Talking about grief more collectively and more openly can help, Greene said.
“We are starting to acknowledge that these things stay with us,” she said. “That there is no timeline for grief.”