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Families cope with grief in isolation

Pandemic brings more deaths and fewer options for mourning

Mourners pray as remains draped in the city police department’s flag leave a funeral home in New York City Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig (file)

Families cope with grief in isolation

Sandy Burress, 62, of Santa Rosa, Calif., died three days before the San Francisco Bay Area instituted the nation’s first shelter-in-place order on March 16. Eight months later, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, Sandy’s widow, Cyndi Howell-Burress, and the couple’s five adult children still have not held a memorial service.

“At first, we felt very robbed,” Howell-Burress said. “Not only did we lose him, but we couldn’t celebrate his life.” Her husband of 40 years died at age 62 from complications of multiple system atrophy, a degenerative neurological disorder. “For now, we are letting it rest. … We’re still unsure what we will do.”

For many like Howell-Buress, saying goodbye to a loved one during the pandemic has been a hollow and lonely experience. Families have had to forgo or modify memorial services amid COVID-19 restrictions that advise against or prohibit large gatherings at cemeteries, funeral homes, or churches.

As of Friday, more than 235,000 people had died of COVID-19 in the United States. Cremation rates have increased since the pandemic began, according to more than half the funeral directors surveyed in a report from the National Funeral Directors Association. Funeral guidelines updated on Nov. 2 from the Centers for Disease Control recommend livestreamed memorial services or small, outdoor gatherings without singing and with masks and social distancing.

Some people are waiting until the one-year anniversary of their loved one’s death in hopes of holding a large, traditional memorial service. Others have opted to have a small service streamed over the internet to friends and family. One funeral director in Everett, Wash., said her company arranged an open casket viewing in a parking lot a quarter of a mile from the cemetery.

Kathryn Kary, a facilitator for GriefShare, an organization that hosts workshops at local congregations for people who have lost loved ones, said a memorial service plays an important role in the grief process. Her previous husband died unexpectedly when she was 29, and hundreds came from out of state to celebrate his life––and hear the gospel message.

“That pending sense of not having the closure of family and friends coming alongside to celebrate a deceased life is what I imagine so many are experiencing during this pandemic,” she said.

When Flossie Briggs of Sebastopol, Calif., died in March, state guidelines restricted gatherings to 15 people. Debi Garrison, Briggs’ daughter, arranged a small gathering with her brother and a dozen immediate family members at a local cemetery.

Before suffering a stroke, Briggs ran a widows club at church, rarely missed Sunday School, and hosted regular family get-togethers. The family planned to celebrate with extended family, friends, and church members as soon as COVID-19 restrictions eased.

“One month turned into three months … the sorrow became overwhelming,” Garrison said. “I felt like I couldn’t honor my Mom, and I was letting her and her friends down.”

Garrison’s brother helped her find peace in the circumstances. Her faith has given her confidence in God’s sovereignty: “I realize this is my cross to bear this year, and that I am not bearing it alone. I’m not grieving alone.”

Howell-Burress has encouraged her children with 1 Thessalonians 4:13. “We do not grieve as those who have no hope,” she said. “Without the Lord, I could not do this.”

Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.



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