Written by Emily Phan, LMFT
Over the last year we have experienced devastating losses. The coronavirus has swept into this world and ravished its people. In most cultures, part of the grieving process is being able to attend some form of a memorial service for the recently deceased whether that person’s body is present in a casket, an urn or simply in spirit. This week I attended my first funeral since the coronavirus pandemic began. In some ways I count myself amongst the most fortunate since this was my first experience with both a coronavirus-related death and a funeral during the pandemic, while I was also struggling with feelings of loss and devastation.
I found myself in the midst of both grief and anxiety as I drove myself to the church to pay my final respects. The grief was expected but the anxiety I felt took me by surprise. As a therapist, I recognized this emotion and negative thought process and I found myself sitting in the parking lot asking how valid my anxiety was and if I could be overreacting. Thoughts swirled in my mind; it was incredibly important for me to pay my respects to a great man and to his family, yet I also felt some hesitation. I was trying to anticipate what a funeral and visitation would look like in the midst of a global pandemic.
I was searching for some comfort when I picked up my phone and texted a loved one to ask about their arrival and then with my mask in my hand I got out of my car. I spotted my friend and put on my mask and my hand sanitizer and then we proceeded to walk socially distanced to the door together. This was the first moment that it dawned on me that I would not be able to hug any loved ones while in the midst of all of our grief. Funerals are always hard, but a hug can provide comfort and this was not going to be an option.
As I made my way up the stairs, I found some familiarity in being able to look at all the pictures and mementos on display. I entered the sanctuary and saw loving and familiar faces. I instantly felt at ease as I knew that I would still be able to provide and receive comfort even without a touch. Grief and empathy are understood in such a way that even with your face mostly covered and your hands by your side, your eyes and your words can convey the shared emotions. There were brief moments of awkwardness as so many of us began to reach out quickly followed by a pause and a verbal reminder that we aren’t supposed to touch, but as both parties acknowledged that truth it seemed as if we were able to connect in that experience as well.
The pews were roped off in order to provide a proper distance, but the casket remained in its place at the front of the room before the pulpit. While I continue to feel my grief, I also found peace in saying my goodbyes in a sanctuary of people who were all present because of our shared loved one: a truly wonderful man. My anxieties have calmed, not because the unknown is not scary but because the known is still tried and true. A funeral during a pandemic is different and difficult, but the comfort of loved ones will remain the same. My hope is that even in this pandemic, you will be able to focus on what is known and what is comforting during any moments of your grief or anxiety, and feel at peace.