How to grieve in a time of pandemic

People who lose a loved one in these days of COVID-19 have to grieve in conditions that are as abnormal as they are difficult.

People who lose a loved one in these days of COVID-19 have to grieve in conditions that are as abnormal as they are difficult.

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In 5 seconds

Université de Montréal training counsellor Nathalie Viens discusses the difficulties and challenges faced by those who lose a loved one in a period of confinement.

People who lose a loved one in these days of COVID-19 have to grieve in conditions that are as abnormal as they are difficult. Nathalie Viens, a counsellor with Université de Montréal’s Formations Monbourquette training team, has written a guide for bereaved people in times of pandemic. Here, she talks about her work and the issues grieving families — and the dying themselves — face.

How hard is it these days for people who’ve lost someone close to them?

When a person dies, the family is often in a state of shock: they refuse to accept what is, in fact, a natural phenomenon. Funeral rituals play an important role: by receiving the support of the extended family and community and honouring the memory of the deceased, the tragic event is given meaning. At the moment, however, places of worship are closed, and that make things  difficult for people of faith. Funeral homes, for their part, are considered essential services, but they must respect measures of physical distancing. Families are not allowed to host more than 10 or 20 guests, depending on the size of the room. And they must maintain a distance of two metres between them, which makes these gatherings rather surreal. And that's not all: in order to limit the vectors of propagation of the coronavirus, some hospices ask the terminally ill to  limit the number of people who come see them to one relative, and that person is supposed to  represent all the others who’d normally want to visit. A mother with three children, for example, must choose which one of them will accompany her until her last breath.

What are the consequences of these exceptional measures for the bereaved?

They pose an additional challenge. Grieving is extremely difficult physically and emotionally, and now a large part of that energy has to be mobilized at a time when we all have to adapt to a new reality over which we have no control. With people having to stay home during this period of containment, I see two important consequences for bereavement. The first is the risk that the memory of the deceased will be overshadowed by the pandemic; since only a limited number of people can participate in funeral rituals and since people now simply have many other concerns, the legacy of the deceased could more easily be forgotten. The second consequence is an increased risk of incomplete bereavement, which could eventually lead to withdrawal, anxiety and attachment problems or even depression. Funerals can be postponed, but not bereavement. That is why I wrote our new guide (in French) to help people begin to grieve in the best possible way in the context of this health crisis.

What advice do you have for people grieving at this time?

Even if the funeral is disrupted or postponed, people need to find other ways to mark the death and meet their need to be in communion and supported by others. I realize how difficult this is:

after all, people are being asked to urgently reinvent rituals that have existed since ancient times. In our guide, we encourage them to be creative, and propose several ways they can replace traditional funeral rituals with alternatives. We suggest that the first farewell to the deceased be a few hours or days after their death. This can be done in the presence of the deceased at the funeral home, while still respecting health rules, or at home, in front of a photo of the deceased. Then, a few days or weeks after the death, the family can organize a virtual meeting, over the Internet, to allow other members and friends to get together and express their emotions. A period of silence can then be held, texts read and significant musical pieces played. Finally, once the current period of confinement is over, it will still be possible to organize a formal funeral in front of the urn or casket, although it will have to be a closed casket if the 30-day period for displaying an embalmed body has expired.

What does this pandemic tell us about our relationship with death?

We often only realize how important something is when it’s gone. The ban on gatherings reminds us that social rituals, especially funerals, still have a place in our modern societies. Grief is not only experienced in private; it needs to be lived openly with a community. This communal aspect of mourning is often overlooked in the West, where death has unfortunately become a taboo subject. Some people try to avoid funeral rituals because they think they will suffer less. But anything that is not experienced during the funeral ritual is simply postponed and manifests itself in conditions that are often more difficult.

These days, aren’t we all mourning something — our freedom of movement, for example?

Grieving means saying goodbye to something that no longer exists. But our ability to go where we want to go with whomever we want will come back. The bereaved person lets a loved one go forever. If there is one thing we should all be mourning right now, it’s our sense of being all-powerful: we’re not invincible beings who’ll one day defeat death. But a good dose of humility won’t do us any harm. As human beings, we must take the full measure of our fragility if we’re to prepare adequately for future pandemics and other global tragedies to come.

About the guide

In its new French-language Guide pour les personnes endeuillées en période de pandémie, the Formations Monbourquette training team offers a list of professionals who, online and over the phone, can accompany people as they go through the mourning process during confinement at home. The team, which offers professional development activities to caregivers working with bereaved people throughout Quebec, has been part of UdeM’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences of the Université de Montréal since last year, thanks to a major donation from the Fondation Monbourquette.

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