How to Grieve When a Funeral is Not Possible

Grieving woman looking out window

The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed how we live, but perhaps even more heartbreaking, how we are able to grieve. Social distancing has prevented holding funerals or otherwise gathering to mourn the loss of our loved ones, and even a comforting touch or hug isn’t safe.

Other rituals have been disrupted as well. Jewish and Muslim religions state that there must be a disposition of a person’s remains within 24 hours after death, but in many places this is not possible; there are delays as funeral homes, cemeteries and crematories struggle to keep up with the high number of COVD-19 deaths.

We mourn the loss of loved ones, and also our many ways of saying goodbye: the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, the week-long period in which friends and family visit those in mourning to offer condolences and provide comfort that dates back to biblical times; the Irish wake, simultaneously joyful and sad, when people share songs, drinks, and stories about the departed; the Islamic ritual washing of the deceased’s body; and countless others.

“Not being able to perform rituals [is] devastating for people,” said psychologist Noe Kasali, director of the Bethesda Counseling Center. “It prolongs their suffering.”

One family member expressed how unsettling the inability to gather in mourning his father’s passing is: “It feels unreal, like it didn’t happen.”

In response, funeral providers, communities, and families are finding alternative ways to be “together” to honor loved ones who have died.

Technology is playing a big part. Mourners are gathering virtually via Zoom and Skype, the free video/audio communications platforms. Families are filming funerals live on Facebook, which allows not only loved ones to take part virtually, but also opens the experience to condolences from many in the shared experience of isolation. Some funeral homes are livestreaming services, so friends and family far away can participate.

In a first-person story on cheddar.com, Max Godnick described a funeral held on Zoom for his grandmother, who passed away after complications from COVID-19, as “the most meaningful, spiritual, intimate, and inspiring funeral I’ve ever been to. …The moment encapsulated the best of social media playing out in real-time. I was provided a window into my family’s global network of love and support — separated by distance but brought together by a single purpose and Zoom grid view.

“Just like so many other families around the world right now, mine learned just how hard it is to lose a loved one without being able to see them, be with them, or say goodbye in their final days,” Godnick said.

Others are creating new ways of honoring those they’ve lost. In County Kerry, Ireland, neighbors lined the mile-long road from the church to the graveyard to say goodbye to their friend Betty Ryan, careful to maintain safe distance between one another. “A beautiful tribute and great example of community spirit,” one observer said.

Closer to home, in Louisville, KY, a family held a “drive-by funeral” procession. One by one, cars stopped in front of the home of John Renn Jr. and tossed flowers, held signs at the car windows, and smiled and waved at the family.

“What a time we’re living in right now,” said Renn’s nephew, Rick Obst. “Everybody needs a hug, but throwing tragedy on top of it? These kinds of celebrations have to be done and can be done. We’re trying to set an example, hopefully, of how we can do this the best way and still stay safe from the coronavirus.”

Many families who may have been debating whether to choose burial or cremation for a loved one are now choosing cremation – already the choice of more than half in the US. This gives the option of scheduling a memorial service at a later date; also, in a tightened economy, cost has become a bigger consideration, since cremation is about one-third the price of burial.

“It’s important to find connection in whatever ways you can,” said Megan Devine, a therapist, grief advocate, and author. “Even starting a text thread with close friends to talk about the person you’ve lost can be helpful.”

Other alternative mourning rituals:

Talk to people. Reach out to your social support network – family and friends – through phone calls, emails, and video platforms. While physically separated, staying connected, talking and sharing stories about your loved one, can help alleviate the feeling of being alone in your grief.

Create and express. There are so many ways to pay a personal tribute to your loved one, and art is both healing and a release. Write about or to them, or journal about how you’re feeling. Cook their favorite meal. Plant a tree or flowers in their memory. Read their favorite book, listen to their favorite music, or watch their favorite movie. On social media, you can create a Facebook or Instagram page dedicated to them, and invite others to contribute or share their memories as well. Do an art or music project that you’ll be able to share with loved ones when you’re together.

Plan a memorial service for later. In a time of uncertainty, it can be deeply healing to make plans for what you’ll do in the future, when you’ll again be surrounded by family and friends who will join you in honoring this special person. Rather than thinking of a tribute as being canceled, you can use this extra time to plan something special.

Ask for help. If you’re struggling, there are grief resources you can go to for support. The Dougy Center, Grief.com and Grief Resource Network offer groups and programs; you can also subscribe to the Neptune Society’s free bereavement series, 12 Weeks of Peace.

Most important, don’t deny your grief. Even if, in the time following your loved one’s death, you can’t mourn and celebrate their life in the way you wish, acknowledge your feelings of loss and sadness. In the midst of this larger crisis, when you may be overwhelmed by fear and anxiety, it’s not healthy to minimize or dismiss how this personal loss is affecting you. It’s okay to cry. We all grieve in different ways, so be true to your own feelings, and ask for the emotional support you need.


Published | Category: Resources.