In June 2020, Beverley Smith’s husband, Stewart, died of cancer at their home in rural Nova Scotia. Because he died in the early months of the pandemic, the planned visitation and funeral could not take place, as the couple’s youngest son and granddaughters live in Ontario. Instead, Smith brought Stewart’s ashes home and placed his urn in their living room. She set out a guest book, and every person who came to the house throughout the summer was asked to “visit” Stewart and sign it.
Yet it became apparent to Geoffrey, her other son who lives nearby, that something was wrong. “Things were still in lockdown, and Geoffrey asked if it was bothering me that there had been nothing,” she says. “I just sobbed and said yes.”
So, later that month, the family had a small service in Geoffrey’s backyard with relatives and three close friends, as well as a minister who read scripture and did a blessing on the ashes in the urn. Only then was Smith able to move on, putting away the guest book and moving Stewart’s urn onto his bedroom dresser.
According to the website of the Canadian Grief Alliance, a coalition of national leaders in bereavement, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a complexity of grief never seen in our lifetimes: “Canadians have been robbed of goodbyes with dying friends and family or people they care about and forced to grieve in isolation without funeral rites.” When we suddenly couldn’t gather — for a funeral or for a celebration of life, in a church with a choir or in a backyard with coffee and doughnuts — it reminded us how important it is to do something meaningful after a loved one dies.
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As the daughter of a funeral director, I was raised to appreciate the necessity of coming together to mourn and remember, to cry and tell stories. I recently completed a certificate program in thanatology — the study of dying, death and bereavement — and every text emphasized the importance of facing death and loss, and sharing the experience with others. Having to postpone a gathering, a burial, suspends us in a waiting period that can prolong our acute grieving and build a dreaded anticipation for whatever end-of-life ritual will be done.
“I think [the pandemic] definitely brought to mind an awareness of a need for ritual, a need for marking the death of somebody in a shared way, and that coming together for support,” says Marney Thompson, the director of bereavement services at Victoria Hospice in Victoria and one of the Canadian Grief Alliance’s founding members. Funerals or some kind of gathering after someone dies, she says, are an important transition “in terms of that bereaved person being seen and witnessed and held by their community as someone significantly impacted by the death of someone they were close to.”
Before the pandemic, funerals were on the decline, in part because of cost but also, I believe, because of our “death denying” culture. Yet death and grief are always with us, no matter how we try to ignore or avoid them. “As long as we’re alive, we will grieve the people we’ve lost,” Thompson says, and remembering a life is an essential part of grieving.
Throughout the pandemic, bereaved persons had a choice to make: postpone a service or burial for a few months, even a year, and wonder if anyone would still care, or settle for a small gathering at the time of death.
When Sarah Whaley of Orillia, Ont., lost her younger brother suddenly in June 2021, the province’s rules limited funerals to a graveside service with 10 people, including the minister. The lack of funeral and a reception was difficult on both her close-knit family and her brother’s many friends and colleagues. With three older siblings and their spouses and children, Whaley describes having to go in separate shifts to visitation with their parents as “awful.”
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“We always knew we wanted to open up to a larger number of family and friends so we could gather together,” Whaley explains. “A lot of people were doing that at the time. If you look at obituaries during the pandemic, they say, ‘We’re going to gather at a later date.’”
For Whaley, the outdoor memorial gathering at her home at the end of August was more of a blessing than she expected. “If we had all gathered at the funeral, I wouldn’t have gone through his apartment yet. It gave me time to put all that sorting and packing aside then really focus on the gathering, refocus on the things [my brother] loved.”
She says the gathering drew the whole family back together again and was particularly helpful for her two children, aged 16 and 19, who were really mourning the loss of a beloved uncle.
A death brings people together: instinctively, intentionally and empathetically. Together, we mourn, we tell stories, we celebrate, we might even party. All of it helps mitigate the ongoing feelings of loss.
Perhaps one of the lessons of the pandemic is that we, as social beings in relationships, need the rituals that come with gathering and mourning together. I think it’s too soon to know if people will re-embrace end-of-life rituals as part of their experience of death and grieving, but as the pandemic proved, we grieve better together.
Sara Jewell is a licensed lay worship leader and the author of Alphabet of Faith: 26 Words About Faith, Ethics, and Spirituality. She lives in Nova Scotia.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2023 issue.
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