By: Maggie Halterman-Dess, Library Annex Coordinator, University of Iowa Libraries
At Thanksgiving last November, before the Sars-Cov-2 Novel Coronavirus was even a news oddity, I said goodbye to my elderly relatives with a sense that this might be the last time I saw some of them. Although I would be spending the December holidays with my in-laws or at home, we parted looking forward to seeing one another again at Easter.
You know the rest. Our traditional Easter potluck was canceled, along with everything else after mid-March. It was a disappointment to miss one of the four or so big gatherings that are a highlight of the family year on my father’s side. I worried that I might have missed one of the last chances to spend time with several loved ones but consoled myself with the thought that staying away meant keeping them safe.
Since then, members of both my and my partner’s families have died. Both elderly, neither from coronavirus-related causes. Mercifully, neither was hospitalized for long, though only one was able to die at home.
It’s hard to describe how odd it feels to be grieving the loss of a loved one right now. The call from another family member that the end is near. The sense of tension in your body as you wait for the other shoe to drop. Not being able to rush to join the rest of the soon-to-be-bereaved, even if there’s no practical assistance to offer. The weird sense of calm when the second call comes. Searching for and then refreshing the obituary page, waiting for details.
Both families opted for a smaller ceremony with larger memorial events proposed for a future time when we can all be together safely. I was in the middle of a (virtual) professional conference during the first funeral and didn’t feel able to excuse myself temporarily to watch the livestream even if my colleagues would have been more than understanding. The other person was entombed in a brief ceremony lead by a family member with a small audience of immediate relatives participating via Zoom, with many of the technical difficulties that imply. My relative’s birthday is coming up- maybe I’ll be able to sit down and watch the burial recording. I’m almost afraid to do so, as if that might make it more “real.”
Supporting my partner as they mourn a close family member is a new experience. Past losses when I was in elementary school are very different from this adult loss, with cares and responsibilities that children don’t face. I’ve approached this using my own work on mental health and learning about death and mourning, ultimately leading to letting them know I was available to talk or help if needed, making sure they ate as well and regularly as possible and stayed hydrated, and mainly just giving them space while reminding myself that everybody copes with grief in their own way. After the Zoom funeral, I made sure we had an easy to prepare and comforting meal and strategized evening entertainment options to have available once the distractions of the workday are over.
While my faith and the steadfast faith of our departed loved ones provide some comfort, without being able to share in collective mourning rituals and share grief and memories in person I feel untethered and adrift; my partner agrees. Without shared commemorations, it’s like the processes are on hold indefinitely. I keep trying to imagine the family dynamics and events without these people, and there’s just an awkward hole they used to fill. In a time where gatherings seem like part of a distant past, how do we restructure our relationships and traditions?
I don’t have any answers; I just want to share our experiences in case it helps others. There are many kinds of grief to feel right now. While I was writing this post, my area was devastated by a natural disaster and nearby communities and colleagues are bearing that additional grief. It feels overwhelming, but none of us needs to be alone.
Blucher, Jamie. (2020, April 11). Learning to Grieve Without a Proper Funeral in the Time of Covid-19. The Mighty. https://themighty.com/2020/04/covid-19-how-to-have-a-virtual-funeral/
CDC. (2020, February 11). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/stress-coping/grief-loss.html
Covid-19 Toolkit. (2020, April 8). The Order of the Good Death. http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/covid-19-toolkit
Chavez, Sarah. (2020, March 27). Funerals & Dying in Absentia: Inspiration & Tips During Covid-19. The Order of the Good Death. http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/funerals-dying-in-absentia-inspiration-tips-during-covid-19
Yuko, E., & Yuko, E. (2020, April 10). Processing grief during a pandemic, when nothing is normal. Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/coronavirus-grief-pandemic-emotional-fatigue-981847/