In a two-part blog series, Kelly McCutcheon Adams, LICSW, discusses the issue of preserving rituals and honoring grief in the unprecedented COVID-19. In both pieces, she explores how we can adhere to normalcy as much as possible in order to help us resist surrendering sacred practices to the pandemic. Here, in part one, she encourages readers to support the bereaved by helping them connect to rituals of meaning in the culture and family. In part two, she offers various ideas for those who are grieving and how they can process their loss while social distancing.
Months ago, I saw a headline about a discovery that proved an example of burial rituals going back farther than previously known. The details have fallen away but the message remained – humans across eras, across cultures, across the globe have long-needed to engage in rituals of transition and comfort when experiencing the death of a loved one.
Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, we were already experiencing sea changes in our mourning rituals through the presence of social media: deaths announced and condolences received on Facebook, quick electronic condolences shared on a funeral home webpage, bad news shared via text and email. When my beloved former stepmother was dying of cancer, I begged her daughter to not tell me the news of her death over email. When an email blast went out with the sad news from another family member, her daughter raced to reach me via cell phone. I was in a bookstore with my children and I knelt down in the aisle and held them while crying.
Now in this time of social distancing and quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, we see not only the recent transformation of ritual through social media but an extremely rapid transformation towards the inability to convene in person for funerals, memorial services, wakes, calling hours, sitting Shiva, etc. When a death occurs due to COVID-19, family members have often been denied the opportunity to be with their loved one at the time of death, to close their eyes, to bathe their body. Rituals that have sustained us in our respective cultures for thousands of years have fallen away in a matter of weeks.
A week ago, I attended a funeral on Zoom for a friend’s mother who died not of COVID-19 but in the time of COVID-19. The family had delayed the services with hopes of attending to these rituals in person but as the situation worsened nationally, they chose to bring the ritual online. It was strange and beautiful; familiar and unfamiliar; essential and needed. Alongside a carefully planned service were the attendant, “You need to unmute… can you hear me now?” moments now marking our daily work meetings, faith community services, online recovery meetings, family dinners across the miles, and community meetings. Those moments were levity amidst the pain of loss and the lovely memories being shared of a life very well-lived. Music played, photos streamed, tears flowed, and memories resonated. There were pre-arranged speakers and then time at the end for people to raise a virtual hand and be called on for brief reflections. There was also an opportunity to chat condolences and memories into the chat at the end of the service which were visible to all and then available for the family afterwards.
And, in one of the most striking differences, we sat across the electrons face to face with my friend and her siblings and their mother’s best friends – eight Brady Bunch photo tiles of the bereaved. The many, many attendees were not on camera. The familiar view of seeing the bereaved from behind with their dark-clothed shoulders shaking from the front row was flipped and we saw their eyes. Perhaps this is a part of the new ritual we should keep even when we can gather in person and put our arms around the grieving. Perhaps we should continue to look in each other’s eyes and to say we see and hold the pain.
This time of rapid change may push us away from ritual but one of the greatest gifts we can give each other is to support the bereaved in connecting to rituals of meaning in their family and culture:
- Fear of navigating the technology of online connection may push some away from attempting online gatherings. How can those of us navigating those worlds every day at work step up to make it possible?
- Let’s be sure to pick up the phone and be a human voice of condolence. If we would have attended calling hours then let’s let the bereaved hear our voices even if only through a voicemail. If we lack for words, we can say, “I don’t know the right words but I wanted you to hear my voice say how sorry I am for so great a loss at so hard a time.” Let’s keep those lines of connection open in the weeks and months that follow.
- We may not be dropping off casseroles, but can we help with grocery delivery or a take-out meal? Is the local florist still safely delivering flowers?
- Let’s try to reach beyond electronic communications to get cards in the mail to express sympathy – and not just at the time of death but in the weeks and months that follow. We may not have thought to stock up on sympathy cards when we were buying canned fruit and toilet paper but let’s remember that the mailed note on a sheet of to do list paper or a scrap of wrapping paper will mean far more than the fancy sympathy card that could never be mailed.
- Let’s get creative. We have a newly-widowed neighbor whose lovely wife used to go all out in decorating their Easter-Egg-colored Victorian home for every holiday. A couple days ago, my children and I took our newly arrived sidewalk chalk and drew bunnies and chicks and rainbows and flowers on his front walk that he can see from his front porch. He blew kisses when he saw what we were up to. The small gestures we can execute on will have more meaning in the end than the impossible large gestures that cannot be achieved.
Although we may at first turn our attention most pressingly to the rituals of mourning during COVID-19, let’s also remember that there are many other rituals falling away in this time of social distancing: proms, graduations, weddings, baby showers, confirmations, bar/bat mitzvahs, anniversaries, birthdays, sobriety milestones, etc. How can we both acknowledge the loss of the expected ritual with compassion and sympathy while also helping to create whatever ritual is possible in the space of what is missing? There is great space for the intersection of creativity and technology here and working together, we can create connection.
It is a hard time that not all will survive. We have many gifts to share in supporting each other to bind to the rituals of the ages, to feel the thread of the past and the future around us, and to know that we are not alone.
Kelly McCutcheon Adams, MSW, LICSW, a Director at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement since 2004, focuses on critical care and end-of-life care. She is a medical social worker with experience in hospice, nursing home, sub-acute rehabilitation, emergency department, and ICU settings. Ms. McCutcheon Adams has also served as faculty for the Organ Donation Collaborative of the US Department of Health and Human Services and for the Gift of Life Institute.