Death and grieving with the coronavirus: People navigate how to honor their dead and dying loved ones with physical distancing policy
Special to the Sierra Sun
Possibly mere statistics for some, the rising death toll from the coronavirus — at about 4,600 in the U.S. as of Wednesday afternoon — has a real impact on the lives of many.
And deaths from COVID-19 are not the only concern for people and public health experts.
As Ron Klain, former Ebola czar for the Obama Administration, explained, non-coronavirus deaths could rise as health-care professionals become more concerned with preventing the spread of COVID-19 and treating patients with the virus.
For those people, there’s often a common desire to be with their loved ones as they die, to possibly hold their hands, comfort them through the process and physically emote their grieving — which is difficult, when, to prevent the spread of a pandemic, health experts urge people to keep 6-feet of distance.
Placer County resident Jonathan Hoover’s family recently had this experience at the Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee.
After falling down, Hoover’s mother-in-law was eventually taken to the Truckee hospital on March 19 where visiting family members, who had visited her in the hospital, were later told to leave the following day without an explanation, according to Hoover.
Hoover was fearful that his family members wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to his mother-in-law, who was still alive and in the hospital as of March 25.
“It was just unfortunate, it’s frustrating,” he said, later adding “It’s affecting people’s ability to be with their loved ones.”
The Tahoe Forest Hospital would not comment on the situation with Hoover’s family, but a spokesperson for the hospital said visitation is limited, and that phone calls are encouraged.
“In general, all hospitals are limiting or eliminating visitors to the hospitals at this time,” according to the spokesperson.
Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in western Nevada County also has tight restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and according to new guidelines generally limiting one visitor per day who provide comfort care, birth support and who are healthy.
While understanding the importance of these changed policies, Hoover’s problems, and for those like him, nonetheless remain. He said the family may postpone a memorial service in case his mother-in-law dies while people are sheltering in place. Whatever happens, he’s letting a higher power guide him.
“Our whole family is very religious, and we believe that God is in control of the whole situation,” he said. “God’s hand is in this, and we’ll run with it and see what happens.”
GRIEVING FROM A DISTANCE
Just across the Atlantic in late February, Rev. Jerry Farrell’s brother fell sick in London and died.
The cause was a pre-existing condition, unrelated to the coronavirus, but for fear of contracting and spreading the virus to his congregation, Farrell, the lead minister at Unity in the Gold Country Spiritual Center in Grass Valley, decided not to attend his brother’s funeral across the ocean. He tried to virtually connect to the March 10 memorial service, but the internet was spotty, he said. For the reverend, a native to Ireland, celebrating and honoring the dead is a deep part of the national culture, a place that is notorious for its wakes and people fully embrace the dying process.
Farrell, who worked with local hospice for five years, is now navigating his bereavement with no physical contact, and more limited contact with friends and family members via texts, calls and videoconferencing. He said that while this helps, his “grief is parked,” awaiting a time, hopefully in the future, when he can hold a memorial service to honor and remember his brother with his family and possibly his congregation too.
“It’s challenging, it’s difficult, it’s sort of surreal,” said Farrell. “It happened but there’s no evidence that it happened. We have these things for a reason. They’re necessary and healing. If we don’t deal with it now, it gets backlogged.”
Death doula and co-founder of Full Circle of Living & Dying nonprofit Akhila Murphy said her hospice volunteer group is no longer conducting in-person bereavement support. Her nonprofit has also suspended its volunteers from entering peoples homes to prepare for a death, or support family members of the dying. Now, she’s mostly connecting with people via phone calls and social media to offer support.
Nonetheless, the process for bereavement and grieving has become trickier, and often more difficult, in a moment of physical distancing, especially for those who don’t want to die alone.
“This is particularly perplexing,” she said. “If someone is dying, how do we do this?”
FINDING CONNECTION IN VIRTUAL SPACES
At his Gold Country Spiritual Center, Farrell has halted in-person services. While difficult, Farrell said moving his classes and sermons online is still important, if only to allow others to continue seeing one and to interact through a screen.
Farrell said the most popular comment during an online class from his congregates was, “It’s just so nice to see each other.” The reverend recommended his congregates continue using FaceTime and Zoom to connect with each other during the week, unrelated to his services.
“It’s broadened my awareness of human connection through the eyes,” said Farrell.
The minister has begun posting photos of his members on the church seats so he can see them every day, despite them not being physically around.
“It’s so moving; it’s so touching,” he said. “It’s like having a congregation present.”
Murphy is also innovating as a death doula, connecting by phone with those grieving for loved ones.
While not wanting to recommend whether people should still have in-home funerals, or be able to be in contact with their dying loved ones because the situation varies significantly, Murphy noted FaceTime calls, sending letters and reading poems on the phone can be helpful. And Full Circle is continuing to virtually connect with others.
“Letting them know we’re still here for support,” she said.“We want to keep social connections while physical distancing from each other.”
Farrell too is trying to remain connected. He’s had his chaplaincy reach out and touch base with people who have health issues and those living alone. He’s also trying to establish a bereavement group in anticipation of any deaths that will occur from, or unrelated to, COVID-19.
At his church, he’s erected a Wall of Remembrance with a photo and associated name of anyone connected to the community who’s died around this time.
So far, his brother is the first one to appear on the wall. He’s hoping to hold a memorial service for all of them at his church when people can once again honor, grieve and rejoice in the same space.
“Even with people who don’t know my brother, for people to just hold that space for me.”
Sam Corey is a staff writer for The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4219.
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