Grieving and Caring during COVID-19

My last post came from a place of deep sorrow as I tried to understand how I could support families who were grieving during this time of social distancing, mass illness, and profound change.

Thanks in part to many of the responses and interviews I did in the wake of that post I found myself feeling inspired to help craft creative and compassionate new ways for families to find ways to grieve, get support, design services, and limit service sizes, as well as tips for people supporting people who are currently grieving the death of a loved one. I drew from Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s The Six Needs of Mourning, past mourning traditions, and conversations with families. I’m please to share those ideas here and hope that they may be of use others.

1. For Grieving Families

2. Designing a Graveside Service

3. Limiting Gathering Size

4. Supporting Someone who is Grieving

1. Grieving During the Pandemic

Because of the gathering restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic mourning the death of a loved one is especially difficult at this time because we can’t engage in familiar traditions such as funerals and receptions. I hope these ideas help you feel connected and supported by your community as you grieve during this time of social distancing.

One of the wonderful things that happens at funerals and receptions is the chance to meet other people who loved your loved one- people you might not even know- and hear their stories. Thanks to technology sharing stories in groups is something that can still happen.

If you are not comfortable with technology, or do not have internet service, an obituary can be a great way to ask your community to come together to support you, or to be in touch in old-fashioned ways- such as letters.

Mention an activity or wish in the obituary to be done together at a designated time. People can send photos and notes about their experience afterwards. Here a just a few ideas:

  • A favorite song, poem, movie, TV show to be listened to/read/watched
  • Lighting a candle
  • A dedicated moment of silence
  • A time to say a prayer or meditation
  • A color that can be worn on a set day or used to decorate a space indoors or out
  • A routine such a morning cup of coffee, watching the sunset, taking a walk
  • A favorite meal that people can make and eat on a set day

Or ask your community to do something over a longer period of time such as:

  • Hang/place something in a street facing window- perhaps a sign with a favorite memory, saying or poem; a specific color, or even just your loved one’s name so that when you walk around your community you can see who is supporting and thinking of you.
  • Place a basket on your steps and ask for people to leave memories, cards, photos, flowers, or condolences. Ask people to leave live plants you can use them in a memorial garden.

Things to organize in the community:

  • A drive-by wake: People can meet at a certain time at a designated spot and then drive past the home. Encourage people to make signs and/ or bring battery-powered/electric candles for the family to see.
  • A Facebook page for people to share stories, pictures of themselves participating in the activity, and stay in touch 

Things you can do to signal that you have lost someone:

  • Place a candle in your window with your loved one’s name and objects that are symbolic to their life
  • Hang a black wreath with your loved one’s name on your door

Signaling to your neighborhood that you are mourning is one way for them to know you might be in need of extra support or even just good wishes. If you’d like, you can even organize a way for them to respond, such as asking for cards.

2. Designing a Graveside Service

During the COVID-19 pandemic the most common funeral option has been a graveside service with plans for a memorial church service or celebration of life at a later date. While some religions offer a short committal service, you may wish to add elements of your own to the ceremony. I hope these tips help you think about crafting a unique service to honor the life of your loved one.

Simple is beautiful. Nothing needs to be extravagant and service time should be approximately 30-45 minutes.

Consider:

Who will you be inviting, what do they have to offer- do they sing, write poetry, speak well in public? With only a few people in attendance, use the talents of the guests to design something unique and meaningful. 

What elements of your loved one’s life do you want to honor and celebrate at the graveside? 

Asking those attending to dress in your loved one’s favorite color, or sports team jerseys/hats.

Discussing with loved one which readings and songs they feel are meaningful to the life of your loved one- you might learn of something new and it is a great way to include people who can’t be physically present

Asking the people attending to share (short) stories of how they knew your loved one at the graveside. Have them include how they will carry the memory of your loved one in their life moving forward. You can also ask people who can’t attend to write a 1-2 minute story that can be read.

Prior to the service, asking people to write down a wish or memory that can be placed in the grave with the casket- these can come even from people who can physically be there and even read aloud before being placed.

Find a way to include people who cannot be there so that everyone feels as though they are able to honor your loved one and support you:

  • Live-stream or record the service.
  • Ask everyone to them wear a favorite color/sports team of your loved one’s.
  • Start the service with a moment of silence everyone can observe at that specific time.
  • Place flowers for people who would otherwise be there on the casket and state who each flower is from.
  • Bring a small object (like river stones) that can be present at the ceremony and the given to everyone who attended and distributed to those who can’t attend. If your loved one collected items (such as teaspoons or other knick-knacks) and you are comfortable sharing those, that would add a lovely personal touch.
  • Create a book of with what was read and said and share it

If you simply cannot limit the number of people who want to attend consider organizing a car parade. People can decorate their cars in honor of your loved one and drive past the gravesite before returning to their homes. If you choose this option please remind people that they must stay in their cars.

FOR GREEN BURIALS

At a green burial the people present can participate in symbolically, or entirely, closing the grave. If this is the case please ask everyone to wear gloves- gardening gloves are ok- and be aware that the shovel handle will be disinfected between uses.

If the cemetery allows planting at the gravesite ask guests to bring an appropriate plant (each cemetery will have its own guidelines but a good rule of thumb is that it should be native and should be a pollinator) and a small shovel. Each guest can take a turn planting their plant.

 

3. Small Gatherings

 At a funeral or graveside service one of the most important things people gather to do is to honor and celebrate the life of the person who has died.  It is only natural to want to include all the people whose lives have been touched by your loved one in the ceremony and invite them to witness the burial.  However, to keep each other safe during the COVID-19 pandemic that is not physically possible.

Many of the families I have spoken to us about the challenges of having to choose only a few people who can be present at the funeral or graveside service. What is unexpected is how rewarding they have noticed the small ceremony being.

There are many different ways to approach thinking about how to limit who you invite. It may be immediate family, or people who are local. The key shared with me by families is to approach the decision with intention and compassion.

Consider:

Who will most benefit from being physically present?

How do the people you invite represent aspects of your loved one’s life?

Who are the people who can come together and support you and each other?

What type of graveside ceremony do you want to have and what roles will the guests play? (See Designing a Graveside Service for more ideas about this as well as how to include people who won’t be physically present)

IF you live in Vermont, things to keep in mind:

Per The Vermont Department of Health, people who travel to Vermont must self-isolate for 14 days prior to interacting with community.

Social distancing regulations mean that groups that have been in isolation together may stand together, those that have not must maintain at least 6 feet of distance between them.

If you are planning on live-streaming a service, internet connections can vary widely so you may need to record the ceremony instead. 

If you simply cannot limit the number of people who want to attend consider organizing a car parade. People can decorate their cars in honor of your loved one and drive past the gravesite before returning to their homes. If you choose this option please remind people that they must stay in their cars.

4. Supporting a Grieving Person

Because of the gathering restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic supporting someone who is mourning the death of a loved one can feel especially difficult.

One thing we can do for people who are grieving is to see and be present for their grief and be supported in their mourning. I encourage you to reach out and share your stories of the person who has died with their loved ones. It is a wonderful way to honor the life they lived and acknowledge how hard it must be for the family to be without them.

In the face of grief, it is hard to know the right thing to say or do but it is ok to admit that. The worst thing you can do is not say or do anything at all. 

Reach out!

  • Send an email or card.
  • Make a concrete offer to help
    • Offer to drop easily frozen meals off at a specific day/time
    • Offer to go to the grocery store and leave groceries on the steps
    • Offer to make a trip to the Laundromat or Post Office
    • Offer to help with garden and yard work
    • Offer to organize an online memorial page or another way to collect stories, memories, and photographs that can be shared
  • Leave a book, magazine, puzzle, or Netflix idea in the mailbox
  • Send flowers or a plant. If you know a favorite color or object ask the florist to incorporate it. Try and support your local florist when you do.

Get creative with your friends and neighbors

  • Organize a drive-by parade at a time when you know the family will be home
  • Put candles in the windows of nearby houses along with the name and/or things that symbolize the person who has died
  • Have a socially distanced picinic in the neighborhood where people can gather on their own lawns but share food, drink, and memories. Perhaps all while wearing a favorite color/sports team of the person who has died
  • Create a shared calendar to make sure that the people who are grieving are getting the support they need over the days, weeks, and months when a kind phone call or offer to run an errand can really make a difference
  • Collect stories, memories, and photos of the person who has died and make a physical or virtual memory book to share

Recognize that you may be grieving too

When someone dies, it isn’t just their family and loved ones who grieve- their loss ripples throughout their community. Reaching out to support the family is one way to address the loss you are feeling.

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