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Remembering A Life Blog

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As I think about the many ways in which this global health crisis has shaped and shifted our everyday lives and culture, always central in my preoccupations and concerns is the omnipresence of grief. Whereas we know that grief is uniquely experienced from person to person, the sheer saturation of individual and collective losses over the last two years can seem overwhelming. It would be challenging to find anyone who has not experienced weighty losses over the last two years, whether from the death of a loved one or through other means.

For quite a few decades now, our culture has put on a pretty convincing show of whistling past the graveyard. Americans have long had high levels of assumed invulnerability. We pretended death didn’t exist. Starting in the late 1800s, we removed it from our homes and began to hide it behind the closed doors of hospitals, long-term nursing care facilities, and yes, funeral homes.  Simultaneously, we staved it off with better nutrition and remarkable medical-care advancements. Many of these developments were positive, but death grew so seemingly uncommon that many people didn’t end up attending the funeral of a close loved one until they’d reached their forties or fifties. As author Jane Walmsley observed, “The most important thing to know about Americans…is that they think death is optional.”  And then Covid-19 came along, and suddenly death was everywhere.

Are You Muted? Unmute Yourself!

What words describe 2020 for you? Closed. Cancelled. Isolated. “You’re muted.” If you haven't had a loved one get sick or die during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may not recognize our society is grieving enormous losses: loss of loved ones, loss of livelihoods, loss of lifestyles. What does pandemic grief look like? I have first-hand experience with major life changes because of the pandemic.

I have spent a lot – and I mean a lot – of time with my kids over the last 18 months. From one moment to the next last winter, they went from small humans I loved spending evenings and weekends with outside of work hours to 24/7 constant companions – as the months of quarantine ticked by, they were my coworkers, virtual schooling students, the only friends I saw IRL besides my husband oh, and also, my kids.  One might hope that spending so much time together has taught us everything we need to know about each other. But as you probably know, we have been in deer-in-the-headlights mode for such a long time now, and every time we think we are on the cusp of a respite, the goal posts move. So sure, I’ve spent a lot of time with them. But I can’t really call all of it “quality;” it’s more logistical, hectic, and frequently stressed. And most of the time, finding moments to have meaningful conversations is something that requires planning.

Over this past year, I’ve witnessed extensive frustration amongst bereaved persons who struggle with making the “right choice” in planning funeral services for their loved ones in these difficult times. Beginning in March, I advised grievers to try to reframe their thinking from finding “the right choice” into making the “right choice for you,” while including technological means of adapting to restrictions. By May, when it became clear that this public health crisis was not going to be resolved within a few months, I also began encouraging grievers to think instead about making the “right choice for now” and then the “right choice for later.”   Additionally, I always tell grieving families that regardless of the service they planned during this year – a private burial, a small funeral with virtual attendees, or no service at all – it is never too late to hold a memorial service for their loved one, regardless of whether or not they already held a funeral.

Love and loss are inextricably linked phenomena. Without one, we do not truly experience the other. In this year of mourning, we must remember and hold fast to love – both the love we shared with those who have died, as well as the love we give to and receive from those who bring joy to our lives.

A Look at Loneliness

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased our awareness of the problem of loneliness. We were lonely before the novel coronavirus arose, and we’re even lonelier since routine social distancing, isolation, and quarantining became unfortunate necessities. Today loneliness is a crisis that cuts across cultures, continents, and classes. Britain has added a Minister for Loneliness to its federal government. In the United States, thirty-five percent of adults over the age of 45 report feeling lonely. In one recent Cigna survey, over half of Americans said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. And young people are lonely, too. Some studies have found that Millennials and Generation Z are the loneliest of all.

Waking Up to Gratitude

Before COVID-19 changed all of our lives, my busy travel and teaching schedule had me hopping. Most mornings after I woke up, I went straight to work. I had a love-hate relationship with the adrenaline of stress. I was a slave to emails, itineraries, deadlines, and flight schedules. Now I’m in limbo. With most of my presentations postponed or canceled, I’m home. I have time to linger over my morning cup of coffee. I have time to breathe and to think. I have time to marvel at the sunrise.

For many caregivers, COVID-19 has been a nonstop wrecking ball. It has swung back and forth across the globe, decimating families and communities. And who’s there in the midst of the ongoing crisis, providing care to the hundreds of thousands of sick, dying, dead, and grieving people? The professional caregivers. The nurses, long-term care workers, doctors, funeral directors, hospice staff, social workers, EMTs, and other critical frontline workers whose vocations place them squarely in the wrecking ball’s path.

I’m a longtime grief counselor and educator, and as you might expect, I talk to lots of people about all kinds of life losses. In recent months I’m hearing that COVID-19 has become a daunting challenge for just about everyone. Not only have stay-at-home and work-at-home protocols isolated people physically and socially, but the uncertainty of illness, financial jeopardy, and an unforeseeable future are making it hard for many to cope. Essentially, people are grieving. Anxiety and depression, especially—which are normal, necessary grief responses—are epidemic. While grief is absolutely natural in the face of these unprecedented circumstances and daily losses, it’s also something that demands compassionate, proactive care.