• August 18, 2021

What about postponed funerals due to COVID-19?

Sixteen months after my grandmother died, my family finally came together to bury her.

Courtesy of Elaine Godfrey; The Atlantic

On Saturday we buried my grandmother. Meemaw died in April 2020, during the first wave of COVID-19 victims in the United States, at the age of 94. For months his death had felt abstract; I was 900 miles from my family and felt like I was holding my breath, not knowing how to understand the loss alone. Sixteen months later, I finally exhaled. We buried Meemaw’s ashes with my grandfather in a small cemetery in central Iowa, where my grandmother had spent most of her life and where she had raised my father and his brothers. Six of my family members were at his grave. My dad played the guitar. His urn was decorated with cattails and small squares of blue glass.

COVID-19 has killed more than 621,000 people in the United States so far. It has also robbed us of the ability to grieve together. Grief experts have not encountered this phenomenon before, this delayed group duel. But a lot of people have spent part of the last year and a half like me, groping their way through loss on their own.

Funerals and similar traditions exist to provide security and appreciation to loved ones; those ceremonies are delayed, sometimes indefinitely, when verification of death is impossible. Families of missing soldiers or kidnapped children tend to have a harder time with grief because their losses are shrouded in uncertainty. “If we don’t have evidence of some kind, somehow, cognitively, it’s hard for us to realize that they really have died,” Pauline Boss, family therapist and Author who studies these types of ambiguous losses, he told me. The ambiguous loss also applies in the case of COVID-19, Boss said. Those taken by the disease are gone, their deaths verified. Yet many of the people they have left behind are unable to mark their losses with the usual traditions. The virus has disrupted our oldest rituals.

Some people have not been particularly bothered by this interruption; Perhaps they found relief in griefing privately and without having to organize a suffocating lunch or prepare comments. But for many people who have lost a friend or family member during the pandemic, the experience has been disorienting. “The last 18 months have been a time of unreality. All the physical touchstones have disappeared or been altered ”, Megan Devine, psychotherapist and author of the book. It’s okay that you’re not okay, he told me. Funerals bring a kind of reality to the death experience that some people need. “Loss is a place beyond language, and when you meet in person, you can convey things without relying on words,” Devine said. Zoom’s services have been important to many people, but they haven’t really been the same: During a funeral, you can offer a gentle handshake or pat on the back of someone. You can share the same food and meet the people who also loved your loved one. Deaths create vacancies in our lives; those rituals and silent interactions are how we recognize empty space.

Meemaw’s burial was simple and small; only six of my family members were there. (Three had been exposed to the virus and stayed home.) But it felt good. We stand in the warm sun and pray the Lord’s Prayer. We laughed at the pastor’s awkward jokes and sang as Dad played a hymn Meemaw loved on his guitar. We don’t sound good, but she would have liked it.

Later, we had a family lunch at the Lutheran church, where we ate two types of Norwegian casseroles and sugar cookies. I hugged my uncles and showed my aunt pictures of my new dog. A friend of Meemaw’s told me how much Meemaw loved to host church dinners, how she collected wildflowers and carefully arranged them in stained glass vases at each table. During the war years, Meemaw had been a cadet nurse, part of a program launched by the United States government to address the domestic nurse shortage. At lunch, we put up a photo of her from 1944; he had a white cap and dimples. Silver-haired ladies came up to tell me that they had worked with Meemaw at the VA. They talked about my grandfather, a Navy radio operator who met Meemaw at a VA dance. The two of them helped build the church where we were.

People don’t need to have a funeral to cry well; Many of us have spent the last year and a half learning this and discovering that we are stronger than we think. Nothing about a memorial service cures grief or provides definitive closure for a loss, and with the rapid spread of the Delta variant, planning a memorial service is not advisable in many parts of the country at this time. But it’s never late. You can wait 16 months or three years or a decade and still feel good standing in a circle and laughing or crying over a cold pasta salad.

In the graveyard, as the shepherd spoke, a dragonfly shot out behind him and pounced on Meemaw’s grave, low enough to make out the pattern of its iridescent wings. I don’t think the dragonfly was a sign from God. But it was nice to see him together.


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