"Not the Way I Wanted It to Be"

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the ways people die and grieve.

Posted Sep 02, 2020

"This isn't the way I wanted it to be."

The first time a bereaved client stated that to me, I was a bit taken aback. After all, is the death of someone we love ever what we wish? Yet over time, I came to understand what she meant. Now, in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, neither dying nor funerals are happening that way we would wish them to.

Because of the quarantines and travel restrictions, many individuals are dying alone. The moments of intimacy sometimes shared in the dying process—the opportunities to finish business, share memories, or personally express feelings—are now missing. Deaths by the coronavirus are likely to be somewhat sudden and unexpected—leaving questions in others within their network of family and friends about their roles in carrying the virus, or guilt that they recovered while others did not. Survivors of non-COVID-19 deaths may feel that their losses were overlooked in all the attention given to the pandemic.

Funeral rituals are often “not what were wanted,” too. Again, physical distancing and travel restrictions are limiting the number of people at a funeral. The intimacy of funerals—the hugs, kisses, and touch—are missing. And especially early in the pandemic, faith communities may have had constrained opportunities to worship in their sanctuaries. And while the informal support of friends and family may seem less apparent as others struggle with all the issues created by the pandemic, formal support such as counseling and support groups are likely to be offered remotely—again, missing the personal contact they once afforded.

This creates a perilous paradox. During the pandemic, there are many issues that complicate grief such as any unfinished business, problems posed in the dying process, and concurrent crises posed by the pandemic like the loss of income or employment. Yet traditional sources of social support are not as viable as they once were.

What can you do if the death you experienced is not the one you would have wanted? The first step is to assess what really bothered you about the death. If it was the absence of the funeral, you may wish to plan a subsequent memorial service. Some faith systems may offer alternative opportunities to mourn together, such as anniversary masses or the unveiling or dedication of a memorial stone.

If it is the lack of support (and if it is safe to do so), you may wish to invite family and friends to small gatherings—perhaps a quiet dinner. Here you can create opportunities to reminisce, share feelings, and to receive and offer support—to mourn together.

Perhaps it is unfinished business—regrets that you did not have the ability to say some last meaningful words to the person who died. You may wish to create a ritual to do so. For example, you may wish to read a letter at the gravesite or even imagine the person sitting in an empty chair as you say what needed to be said.

Sometimes books on grief can help us understand our feelings and reactions. You may also find confidantes with whom to share your grief—perhaps friends, family, or clergy. And, of course, even if they are offered remotely, counseling and grief groups still may be useful.

Most importantly, remember that even if a death is not what you wanted it to be, there are things you can do to yet ease the pain and disappointment.