We have a friend from France who came to visit Florida just before the international flights from Europe were shut down because of the Coronavirus. While here, her sister in France fell ill from COVID-19. Our friend longed to return to France to be with her sister before she died. Her sister had no other family and would die alone. Our friend suffered deep emotional pain, feeling guilty, and distressed. When her sister died, our friend was not able to get a flight back to France to organize the funeral. Sadly, she could not book a flight for another month.
How many stories are there like this one? Dying alone during the Coronavirus Pandemic is the new normal. You don’t have to have family in a foreign country to experience the grief and distress caused by not being able to visit your dying loved one. Nursing homes, senior living centers, and hospitals all prohibit visits. Thousands are dying alone, while their relatives and loved ones are deprived of the opportunity to companion them during their final days on planet earth.
Would you like to die alone? I imagine that few of us would answer yes to that question. I have heard stories of dying patients who were companioned continuously by family but chose a moment when they were alone to breathe their last. I am sure that’s the exception. I love the tradition of some cultures that gather around the dying loved one and sing until the spirit leaves the body. I have only witnessed that twice, but I can say that it truly was a sacred moment.
When I worked as a hospital chaplain, companioning the dying and their families was a normal expectation. Now, however, even chaplains are not allowed to visit those patients who are dying with COVID-19. Virtual visits are arranged for family members, but that’s not the same as a personal visit. I asked a chaplain friend and colleague, “What is the most distressing thing for families that can’t visit their loved ones?” Chaplain Moon replied, “It’s not being able to be there, to touch them. It’s not being able to see them face to face.” I-Pads, computer screens, and zoom are no substitute for human touch.
I wonder what will be the emotional and spiritual impact of this phenomenon of dying alone? Are the COVID-19 patients aware that they might die? Might they be in denial about it? Do they hope for miraculous healing despite evidence of their deteriorating condition? I imagine that some might be angry at the person or persons who may have transmitted the virus to them, or perhaps they are upset at themselves for not taking the recommended precautions. Do they experience anticipatory grief or separation anxiety? Do they miss the opportunity to reconcile with estranged loved ones? Do they regret that they never had the chance to ask for forgiveness? Perhaps they wished to offer forgiveness to a family member or friend who caused them pain and harm. With all of these issues emerging into a dying person’s consciousness is there time to consider reconciliation with God, or coming to terms with their life lived? Does belief in God mediate some of the anxiety of the dying? I hope so.
Over many decades of pastoral care, I have seen dying patients who go out of this world kicking and screaming, while others leave this life with peace and bliss. Chaplain Moon said it this way, “People die the way they live. People who run away from life all life long are going to run away from death, and those who face life bravely will face death bravely.” (Chaplain Jim Moon)
I remember a 90-year-old woman, acutely aware that she was dying, who kept a bag nearby of colorful hand-made butterflies. When people visited her, she would give each one a butterfly and ask them to remember that for her, she would be transformed like a butterfly. Death would set free her spirit. Instead of her being suffocated with death anxiety, she blessed everyone who came to say their good-byes. COVID-19 deprives families of that kind of death experience.
For families whose loved one died alone because of COVID-19, grieving may get complicated. The period of anticipatory grief is likely to be excruciating. People want to be able to do something, to help, to comfort, to touch, to soothe the pain. They suffer from feelings of helplessness. The anger is probably is more potent, and there are plenty of targets for the expression of anger. (We will leave that for another day.) How will this change the way people mourn?
A Funeral Home Director informed me of the many changes to the way they have to do funerals. There are no long all-night visitation vigils, common in some cultures. They have to limit the number of people paying their respects, and keep social distancing, wearing masks. The latest thing is to restrict the burial service to 10 people or less while the funeral is broadcast on zoom. Additional mourners drive by in a procession, while connected by zoom.
Mourning during the pandemic feels uncomfortable and strange. Gone are the hugs and kisses. Gone are many of the cultural rituals and traditions where mourners gather and surround the grieving family. The loneliness of the dying experience is mirrored in the isolation of the grieving experience.
Perhaps a decade or more from now, we will have a clearer understanding of how the pandemic has impacted the grieving process for individuals and families.
Regardless of how it is done, grieving will happen just as surely as the rising tide. It may be complicated, but it cannot be avoided. Mourning families that have been deprived of a full funeral or celebration of life may be comforted by having a memorial service on the anniversary of the death, or on the birthday of the deceased. Hopefully, next year, we will be able to gather together again. We can find creative ways to mourn and to celebrate the legacy of loved ones passed. Perhaps our new ways of mourning will strengthen our human bonds and will give new meaning to life.