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Loss in a Pandemic: Funeral Planning

In the span of less than two weeks, the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has changed virtually every facet of our daily lives in American culture. At the time of this writing, approximately 8,000 people in the United States are confirmed as having contracted this virus, and the number rises by the hour. This pandemic is not expected to be resolved in a matter of weeks but is currently projected to continue for a number of months.

In addition to the health risks, economic consequences, and social constraints secondary to the coronavirus pandemic that we are all experiencing, there are particular and unique challenges for people who are suffering the death of a loved one. While the vast majority of people who become sick as a result of coronavirus recover successfully, some persons who are infected die of complications of the virus. Importantly, while our national conversation is currently centering on coronavirus, families continue to experience the loss of loved ones through all means and need particular support in navigating their grief in this unprecedented time.

If you have experienced the recent death of a loved one or wish to support someone who is grieving, it is important to acknowledge the unique challenges that the coronavirus pandemic poses both to mourning rituals and to the grief experience, particularly as guidelines for social distancing and public closures currently vary from state to state and are changing on a daily basis.

This blog series will focus on the impact of coronavirus on making funerary decisions, experiencing grief, supporting others’ grief, and maintaining mental wellness; it will offer strategies for adapting to the restrictions of a pandemic while navigating our losses in real-time.

Funeral Planning

Americans have more choices in regard to funerary services than ever before in the United States, and planning the events that will occur after a loved one’s death is usually an integral step in acknowledging death and beginning the grief process. If you have recently lost a loved one, you may feel overwhelmed by trying to make the “right choice,” not only to honor the life of the person who has died but also to adapt to restrictions on public gatherings and to keep members of your family and community safe.

However, the “right choice” may actually mean “the choice with which I am most comfortable,” or, more simply, “the right choice for me.” Just as our grieving is unique, so too are our funerary decisions unique. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to planning the funeral of a loved one in ordinary times, and there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to it in this time, either. Give yourself permission to make the decision that is best for you and your family.

Identify Your Values in Funeral Planning

First, determine what a funeral means to you and your priorities and values in honoring your loved one. The rituals we engage after we experience a loss have different meanings for us individually. What’s most important to you? For example, is it most important to you that members of your community be able to participate in a service, like a traditional funeral? Or is it most important that immediate family and close friends are able to share their grief with one another? Alternatively, do you most value being able to publicly acknowledge your grief through a ceremony that involves eulogizing your loved one?

Consider Health Risks

Think about the health risks and ages of people who would be involved in a funeral, as well as the distance and means required for their travel. Although the Centers of Disease Control and World Health Organization information on coronavirus can feel overwhelming, their guidelines are updated regularly online as the spread of coronavirus continues.

Find Ways to Adapt

Thinking about what you identified as most important in honoring your loved one, consider ways to preserve the integrity of your values while adapting to restrictions due to coronavirus. Determine what elements of a funerary service are essential to you and the degree to which you are comfortable in incorporating technology in services. Technological adaptation practices that may be able to assist you in preserving your values while allowing others to participate remotely in a service include:

  • Live-streaming services so loved ones at heightened health risk can participate virtually in real time
  • Recording private services and sharing the recording selectively with members of the community
  • Collecting written remarks from family and friends via email and reading them at a small or private service
  • Using memorialization pages on social media and encouraging grievers to post comments or videos of their memories of the deceased
  • Talk With Your Funeral Director

Funeral directors are our partners in navigating the loss of a loved one in this pandemic and are similarly navigating ways to best serve you when you experience a loss. A friend of mine, Tim McLoone, who is a funeral director and certified celebrant at Fluehr Funeral Home in Pennsylvania, aptly said to me recently, “Our job is to help families begin to heal. . . We must continue to develop creative ways to meet the needs of those experiencing a loss, while doing our part to keep people safe.” Talk with your funeral director about the values you have identified in honoring your loved one and the options they can offer in services and memorialization, including technological support.

Making the “Right Choice” for You

After identifying your values, considering health risks, and talking with your funeral director, you may make one of several decisions. You might decide not to hold a funeral at all, or to hold a smaller service restricted to family and/or close friends. You may decide to postpone a service, or to add a more public memorial event when restrictions on social distancing ease in the future. Whatever you decide, it is important that you are able to validate that while there is no universal “right choice,” you are making the best decisions for yourself and your loved ones in extremely stressful and unprecedented national circumstances.

Sara Murphy, PhD, CT, is a death educator, certified thanatologist (Association for Death Education and Counseling), and suicidologist. She teaches at the University of Rhode Island and conducts workshops and seminars on death, dying, and bereavement nationwide for professional organizations, schools, and community groups.

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