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Part 1: Ritual and Grief in the time of COVID-19

Posted on 04/13/2020

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.

19 Responses

  1. Linda Goddard says:

    lovely . I’d like to post this.

  2. Colleen Shea says:

    This was so beautifully written and an important reminder of how connected we all need to strive to remain even under the most trying of circumstances.

  3. Roberta Barry says:

    Your Mom sent me this. I’m in awe. It is so beautifully written and perfect for the time we are sharing. I have discussed the stages of grieving with a friend who is a therapist as I have felt and waltzed around those stages during this pandemic. I shall email my friend this piece. With great thanks for your work.

  4. I was blessed to be with my husband at his death in November and honored his wishes for cremation but my daughter had a stroke the day before his death so I wanted to have Memorial in April which will not happen. Your article helped me today dealing with this loss of ritual.

  5. Mimi Lafond says:

    What a magnificent article. The overwhelming grief of not being able to honor loved ones who have died during this time of covid-19 is unimaginable! The soothing balm for the grieving soul is the presence of embraces, both physically and emotionally, speaks volumes of how much your loved ones are missed and how greatly they touched the lives of so many others. In the absence of being able to do this, “Thank you” for your insightful ways on how to reach out to those whose loved ones have died. “God Bless you” for the work that you do. Mimi Lafond

  6. Janet Kieffer says:

    May we have permission to post your wonderful message to our FB page – Memorial Masters? People need your insights.

  7. Lissa Rockwood says:

    So well stated. I hope to share this with my Palliative and Hospice care colleagues. It’s certainly dark and changing times here in the hospital, and the home caring settings. Thanks Kelly.

  8. Constance Miller says:

    Thank you so much for this. I am a former RN with interest in becoming an end-of-life Doula. The information shared her is like taking a class and I am sure I will incorporate your insights in whatever I do going forward. What a well written piece.

  9. Kelly McCutcheon Adams says:

    I appreciate these lovely comments and am glad it has resonated for people in hard times. I am thinking of all of you going through loss and adaptation of rituals.

  10. Julie P says:

    I had a ‘eureka’ moment when you wrote of the big difference between in-person services and seeing the backs of the grieving in the front row vs. now seeing them eye-to-eye (virtually, albeit) and it really got me thinking about how maybe this shift will help us to be more open and ‘eye-to-eye’ able to discuss the passing of life with loved ones. Thank you, enjoyed reading this.

  11. Kelly, great post! Loved it! Thought I’d share how I found a way to ‘be present’ for a friend of mine from my synagogue who had just lost her 95 year old mother. Only she, her husband, and our Rabbis were at the cemetery yesterday. The rest of us (over 100 people) watched via Zoom. During her remarks she mentioned that what is most important at a time like this in our tradition is to ‘be present’. Although I was there via Zoom, I still wanted to ‘be physically present’ for her as I would have been in non-COVID-19 times. I spent the next couple of hours thinking about this since I felt this is what she wanted and needed. I then decided I would call her today and ask her if I could come to her house, park my car in front of it and give her a virtual hug while she stood at her front door or on her front porch. She agreed. So I washed my hands, packed four kosher protein bars in a never used brown paper lunch bag and off I went to her home about a mile away. Note: when visiting a mourner, many Jews often bring food so the mourner doesn’t have to worry about what to eat or making a meal. Since I don’t cook well but wanted to bring something, I hoped the protein bars would serve as a meal supplement if she didn’t feel like eating or would be a healthy between meal snack if she did, as well as a creative surprise gift of love and support in addition to my being present and offering virtually hugs from six feet away.

  12. Kelly McCutcheon Adams says:

    I have greatly appreciated getting to see these additional comments/examples/kindnesses. Thanks for taking the time!

  13. […] a post for The Conversation Project entitled “Ritual and Grief in the time of COVID-19,” Kelly McCutcheon Adams, MSW, LICSW eloquently captures how much has changed so fast: “Rituals […]

  14. Katy Butler says:

    Lovely and insightful. Reimagine, a death awareness group, is sponsoring a candlelight vigil via zoom on the 9th of every month, at 5pm Pacific Time (8pm Eastern). We hold up our candles to the screen, while we enter the names of those who have died, and those we worry about, and those we support, like health care workers, supermarket checkers, and others at risk. It’s very moving and healing…it allowed me to cry and to feel connected with all the faces on the screen with their candles. If you want to join, I think you can find it via the letsreimagine.org website. Jack Kornfield will lead a short guided meditation this coming time, May 9th.

  15. Jean Hogan says:

    The 62 yr old son of a dear friend who lives across the country died in the early days of COVID19. There still has been no funeral, no one allowed to give her a hug, she has no computer (by choice) so nothing virtual. But one suggestion here has been a light bulb moment. Even though his death was a month ago, I am sending money for the church youth leader to buy chalk and take some of the youth to the lady’s house to draw messages of hope and comfort on her driveway and sidewalk…. until the day they can all celebrate her son’s life together at the church.
    This will be good for my soul, too, and I hope will help the youth to experience death in a new and positive way.
    Thanks for insight of ways to grieve when we can’t ‘be there’.

  16. Martha Lundgren says:

    After my husband died unexpectedly in March, I experienced huge gaps caused by the pandemic including the forced delay of an in-person memorial service. My pastor and a group of close friends who sit with me regularly on ZOOM helped me struggle with what to do. Your article and another piece on NPR helped me get past my reticence about an online service. We worked together to fashion the kind of service that made the best of a situation I never wanted to be in in the first place. Thank you – you made such an important contribution to my mourning process. I continue to share your article with others.

  17. Lisa Lujan says:

    Boy does this hit home. When my husband passed away (fairly young at 55 and very unexpected) on April 7 this year, it was near the height of Covid in Alameda County (CA) and funerals were basically not allowed except immediate family and even then groups of 8 or less I believe. He was cremated, so we waited to have a wake, funeral, anything the would feel “normal” at this time, but instead Covid persisted and it’s September and we’ve still done nothing. I have felt so guilty for not honoring the man I was married to for 27 years. After reading this….I’m going to talk to my girls about an online zoom service. His brother lives out of state and many of his friends do as well, so my thoughts are it would be easier during Covid for them to still feel like they could attend services and then maybe we can follow with a memorial service this coming April for friends to gather that want too. Thank you for sharing your article. It’s really helpful !

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