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‘Grief purgatory’: How the pandemic stole our goodbyes, and ability to move on

'Being denied the basic ritual that our culture has put in place is inhumane. It doesn’t allow people to get over it...,' says grieving daughter who was unable to give her mother the funeral she requested
2021 04 25 pandemic grief Lesley Stoyan
Lesley Stoyan, whose mother passed away 10 months ago, is hoping to create a park garden in her memory.

In earlier conversations about death, Lesley Stoyan’s mom gave her daughter specific instructions on what her funeral should look like. 

It was to be well attended by friends and family, complete with an open bar, sandwiches and speeches from loved ones to describe “how wonderful she was, even if it wasn’t true,” says Stoyan, jokingly.

“My mother was larger than life,” she adds. “She was very spirited, and had tons of friends.”

But when her mother died suddenly of a bowel disease in June at age 78, Stoyan was forced by the pandemic to break the promise to commemorate her as she had wished. Instead, Stoyan and her sister wore hazmat suits to say goodbye in a North York General Hospital room, and later, only eight family members were allowed inside the cremation room after Stoyan begged the funeral home to slightly expand their capacity of five.

“We couldn’t play that Sophie’s Choice lottery of who got to say goodbye and who couldn’t,” Stoyan says. “They kindly allowed all of us in, and then that was it.”

Ten months on, Stoyan finds herself in “grief purgatory.” Her inability to stay true to her mother’s final wishes weighs heavily on her family, rendering them unable to process the pain.

With the province in a third wave of COVID-19 infections, and daily case counts in the 4,000s more than year after the pandemic began, it’s hard to guess when Ontarians will be able to gather again to mark milestones like death the way they used to. For many, gathering brings comfort — a feeling that has been largely missed by those grieving during the pandemic.

The Canadian Grief Alliance estimates there are more than three million Canadians who have lost a loved one from any cause during the pandemic, and this grief is unlike what has come before: the pandemic has forced a halt not only to regular funerals and services, but to the way families are able to say goodbye in end-of-life care settings. This has left many with tangled feelings of guilt and sorrow.

Some are still holding out for safer days to hold a funeral, even if months or a year have passed since the death — “a celebration of life will be held at a later date” has become a mainstay phrase in pandemic-era obituaries.

For Janice Coles, grieving her husband, Alan, of 41 years has mostly been a solitary experience. Her husband spent the last three months of his life isolated in hospital due to COVID-19 distancing measures before he succumbed to his pneumonia in May.

“I never got to see him again in person until he died,” said the 74-year-old from Toronto. She tried her best to keep in touch with phone calls and video chats, often showing him photos of their three grandchildren. But Coles still felt she’d been forced to abandon her husband in his final days, and that he had felt anxious due to his family’s absence. 

When her husband died, Coles was the only family member allowed at his bedside. When he was cremated, she was the only person allowed inside to retrieve the ashes.

“It was a very depersonalizing experience. There was no warmth at all.”

When COVID-19 case counts fell in Toronto, Coles and her family of 15 gathered outside in August to hold what she called a “cemetery farewell,” where they took turns sharing words about her husband’s life and legacy while they maintained social distancing. The ritual, although different from normal proceedings with extended friends and family, was meaningful enough for Coles.

Grief is a personal process that differs for each individual. But funerals, services and the cultural traditions that surround death give people a way to cope; without them, processing a death can be more complicated, said Stefanie Baresic, a qualifying psychotherapist in Toronto and long-time peer supporter with Bereaved Families of Ontario.

“I think rituals are very important in our lives,” Baresic said. “They provide us a structure for us to go through the emotions.”

In their absence, the inability to mourn effectively can contribute to a larger disconnect between the event of death and the feelings that are expected to come with it, which causes a delay in acceptance.

“Funerals provide a sense of closure, and it’s a way of honouring the person that died and the relationship we have with them,” Baresic said. “It’s also about acknowledging the death.”

With the pandemic lasting much longer than many anticipated, most people have come to accept they can still officially mourn, just in small numbers, said Linda Lee, funeral manager at a Mount Pleasant Group funeral home in North York. People have begun to embrace live-streaming and other virtual means of connecting as part of a service, she added.

“Because the pandemic has been ongoing, the initial thought of delaying a service may have become abandoned now,” Lee said. She anticipates smaller gatherings and virtual ways of including guests who may not have been able to physically make a service will continue once the pandemic is over. 

Still, accepting these pandemic-mandated restrictions is not easy, Lee said. For one, funeral homes continue to have difficult discussions with families on who can attend a service and who cannot based on gathering restrictions, which currently cap funeral homes at 15 per cent capacity for each service. The absence of physical touch and the comfort a hug can bring is also a huge loss, Lee added.

“If someone has passed away now, all you can really do is send a message, or you might get a phone call,” Lee said. 

For Coles, the hardest part of day-to-day grieving has been that inability to hug others, especially during some of the more painful moments of remembrance such as Christmas or an anniversary.

Technology has given Coles a tool to find some solace. On Zoom, Coles attends a local Bereaved Families of Ontario support group for grieving spouses. Sometimes, she bakes with her granddaughter in Edmonton over video chat. 

And on her husband’s birthday in January, Coles cooked his favourite meal — fish and chips — as did a close friend, and they ate the meal together and lit a candle in his honour while on Zoom.

“I said to her, ‘You have no idea how meaningful this has been to me, not being alone on the very first birthday without him.’ ” 

For others like Stoyan, pandemic-era alternatives to grieving cannot substitute for the funeral her mother always wanted. She sometimes reflects on all the speeches her mother’s friends and colleagues never got to give, or all the support her father failed to receive from their extended community upon her mother’s death due to distancing measures.

“Being denied the basic ritual that our culture has put in place is inhumane,” Stoyan said. “It doesn’t allow people to get over it, and I still don’t know where we’re going to be when we come out of the pandemic.”

Stoyan said she’s still considering holding a large gathering for her mother once it’s safe, whenever that is. 

“Grief is a strange thing because it’s not linear,” Stoyan said. “It comes in these magnificent waves.”

And while the waves stir up an ocean of turbulence this generation has never had to navigate, Stoyan and others have found small ways to stay afloat.

For now, Stoyan channels her grief into running. Her route passes by the crematorium that holds her mother’s ashes. It ends in a small park where a commemorative stone stands, made by a friend, “In loving memory of Lynne Stoyan.” It’s a daily reminder of how wonderful her mother truly was.

Nadine Yousif is a federally funded Local Journalism Initiative Reporter at the Toronto Star