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Grief in the time of COVID-19

Father Andrew White. – SUBMITTED


SOUTHWEST COAST – Everyone is familiar with the adaptations and sacrifices that comes with daily life in the COVID-19 world. Changes to commonplace routines like shopping, travel, parties and so on can make things complicated and hard to navigate. What is less frequently considered is the difficulty faced with the loss of a loved one in a pandemic world.

Death is not something that most people carry in the forefront of their mind. However, in the new every day that we are faced with, it is something that has been impacted in ways that may not be immediately evident.

Jim Morris and Colin Osmond of East Haven Funeral Homes have witnessed those changes. Morris says that its painful to have to explain to family members that they might not be able to visit a loved one who has just passed away.

“It’s not very good. They might not understand why all the family can’t come because of all the restrictions that might be in place.”

It can be more than visitation numbers that are affected as well, says Osmond.

“Over the past 12 months we have seen drastic changes, whether it be a traditional earth burial or a traditional cremation service. I think it’s a direct result of the restrictions we’re currently under, and I don’t know if it’s going to change anytime soon.”

The changes that Osmond is referring to are directly related to the alert levels in Newfoundland and Labrador.

At the most restricted Alert Level 5, funeral services are limited to no more than 5 people, and this total includes the officiant. Public visitations and wakes are completely prohibited.

At out current Alert Level 2, those restrictions on wakes and visitations are not mentioned, and services may have up to 50 people. This is relatively new, as the guidelines for Level 2 have just been amended.

Over the last year, the province has run up and down the level scale rather often, with Level 5 being first instituted on Feb. 10, 2020.

One thing that Morris and Osmond have noticed over the past 12 months has been a steady rise in the number of cremation services. Newfoundland trends toward traditional burials over cremation services, with cremation usually making up about 30 percent of services.

Over the last few years that percentage has risen to almost 50 percent according to the Cremation Association of North America.

Osmond explains, “This past twelve months, we have seen a very steady and noticeable increase in the rise of cremation services. I feel it has to do with the COVID restrictions. I mean, how do you sit down and tell a family that due to government regulations, that they can only have a certain number of people to come view their loved one?”

“It’s a big change,” admits Morris.

The end result might be felt a year from now, says Osmond. With travel restrictions across the country impacted by bubbles and outbreaks, travel has never been more complicated or more difficult.

During the level 5 lockdown, for example, travel into Newfoundland and Labrador was severely restricted even just within the Atlantic provinces. This can pose enormous stresses on family members who are trying to return to attend a service, or be with relatives during an already stressful time.

Morris says that they have seen more cremations now than they ever have, and also believes it’s likely a direct result of the pandemic. Being able to have friends and family join you at a later time, when restrictions are fewer, is an opportunity to grieve together in the way that can be lost under a restricted service.

Father Andrew White of St. Anne’s Parish in Millville agrees. Speaking solely from his experience as a clergyman and an officiant at services since coming to the region, he has also observed a number of changes.

“Even at gravesides, we were only allowed to have five people,” he begins, referring to the Level 5 restrictions. “And that was really, really sad to see. It was very heartbreaking for the people, such as a person who couldn’t pray for her mother at her funeral.”

Fr. White has taken the initiative of live-streaming services for those bereaved family members who might not be able to attend, either due to limits on gatherings, or due to travel difficulties.

Limited by poor WiFi or internet service at a number of locations, from La Poile to Coal Brook, Fr. White has adapted by recording the services and distributing it as requested should that be necessary. He has also observed that a service that might once have been a burial service is now a cremation service.

“Under COVID, cremations have noticeably increased. Noticeably,” he states.

When asked if he feels that cremation is on the rise to aid a family in the grieving process, he nods his head.

“Because of the difficulty in travelling, instructions are being sent home to some, to get them cremated to allow time for the family to return home. They don’t know when they will be able to get have a funeral. So it’s leaving families very uncertain.”

Fr. White touches on a common concern among service officiants, saying that a delay in funerary services has an impact on families more than once.

“It creates a lot of problems, because you’ve lost them once. Now you’ve got to go through that again.”

Its the proverbial double-edged sword agrees Morris.

”Mentally and physically it’s very draining. You don’t know what to do. What can you do?” he asks rhetorically.

Reverend Jane Allen says she has had similar experiences ministering to her flock at St. James Anglican Church in Port aux Basques.

“It’s such a big challenge. There are people who have – let’s say 10 children – and their spouses. That’s 20 right there. With officiants and pallbearers, music choices and choir, you could be down next to nil for family right away.”

Osmond and Morris have had their share of the impact of having to follow guidelines. Having to deny visitations or similar traditions takes an emotional toll on them as well.

Osmond confesses that he has gone home after work feeling terrible about the news he has had to give grieving family members.

“Being able to only see their loved one for 10 or 15 minutes,” he says, “It weighs on you at night. It’s such an emotional toll knowing that we have to enforce these laws.”

Until COVID-19 is in the rear view mirror, rules and regulations surrounding funeral and church services will continue to adapt, to say nothing of families who have lost loved ones..

Says Fr. White sums it up succinctly.

“For Catholics, a funeral is both a celebration of life, as well, we believe in praying for the dead – that we can still do good for those who have died. Our funerals do both. For people to go through this over and over again is sad and difficult.”

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