by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven
Saying goodbye to a loved one who has passed is difficult enough. Doing it under the restrictions of COVID-19 is even more painful.
Yet, as many families and spiritual leaders acknowledge, this experience isn’t unique to today’s pandemic.
Father Gerardo Arano-Ponce of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Topeka remembers having to grieve from afar when his grandmother passed away on Christmas in 2003.
She was living in Mexico. He was in the United States, reminiscing about his first Christmas as a priest when he received the news.
“Embalming is not a tradition in Mexico,” Father Arano-Ponce said. “I knew immediately that I would miss the funeral since the wake would be immediately that night and the burial the next day.
“I know I was blessed with the opportunity to have flown home [days later] to Mexico to be with my family and have had some closure.
“But many of the people I minister to in my parish do not have the same opportunity.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe is comprised of an array of people from different Latin American countries and the United States. The two largest groups represent Mexican Americans and new immigrants from Mexico.
According to Father Arano-Ponce, the immigrant community is no stranger to grieving from afar for a variety of reasons, including next-day burials. Additionally, he said, many families lack the resources or travel documents to return safely to their homes in the United States.
One Guadalupe parishioner, unable to attend her brother’s funeral in Mexico, told her pastor that she felt close to her grieving parents there despite the distance for one simple reason.
“Prayer,” she said, “has no borders.”
Forced to stay away
In the weeks since municipalities have issued “stay at home” orders, Deacon Jim Lavin has already officiated at several funerals in the Kansas City area with less than a handful of mourners present.
Deacon Lavin is a chaplain for Catholic Community Hospice. He said families are restricted from spending time with their loved ones while they are in hospice until the very end — and now even at their funerals.
“Some families live only blocks away from their loved ones. But you might as well be 1,000 miles away because you can’t say goodbye the way you want to. You can’t provide comfort. Families are in anguish,” he said.
Sadly, Carrie Lally has witnessed many of the same changes in funeral Masses. Lally is a funeral director at Skradski Funeral Home in Kansas City, Kansas. She said the changes have been devastating for families.
“This has been heart-wrenching from the funeral directors’ side,” she said. “Not crying or showing emotion is one of our strong points, but I have actually had to turn away and face the sun at graveside services.
“Seeing loved ones stand six feet apart and only eight of them [able to attend — 10, counting the funeral director and cemetery staff] — is brutal.”
What history teaches us
This may seem like a situation brought on by the pandemic. However, Sister Susan Holmes, OSB, said this isn’t the first time in history families have been separated when a loved one dies. Sister Susan is a grief counselor at the Sophia Spirituality Center, a ministry of the Mount St. Scholastica Benedictine Sisters in Atchison.
“The pandemic has caused more people to experience grieving from a distance,” she said.
“But I think of all the [military] service members whose deaths are reported to family members in the states long before the body is returned to be buried,” continued Sister Susan. “Also, the bodies of many POWs are returned even years later to their families.”
Sister Susan and others offer tips for coping during these extraordinary times. For example, families can hold a celebration of life for a loved one even a month after the burial, said Sister Susan. The Benedictine community lost two nuns since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but both died of natural causes. Although both were cremated, the Sisters will hold services with family members when restrictions have been lifted.
“It is not ideal, but the services can still help bring healing,” said Sister Susan.
Deacon Lavin encourages families to use what they can during this time, which includes technology. Using FaceTime, Zoom and conference calls, he often prays with families and offers spiritual guidance.
Additionally, he suggests speaking to the cemetery to see what rules they must follow and holding a memorial Mass at a later date. Most importantly, he reminds families to pray for patience.
“I can hear the pain in their voices,” he said. “Grief is real and people want to talk, so I encourage that.”
Because public visitations are not allowed at this time, Lally recommends supporting families in other ways, including reaching out by phone or text, and sending cards and gift cards to local restaurants (directly to the family or via the funeral home).
Families can also use the funeral home’s website and social media to post photos and memories.
“There is no correct way to honor a loved one right now,” Lally said. “You see in the news how people are having drive-by visitations and other neat ways to honor their loved ones.
“I know the families we are serving will have their own original ideas when it is time to have their loved ones’ celebrations. . . . Moving ahead, we will be surprised daily by the way loved ones will be honored — and that’s OK.”
Prayer remains steadfast
Father Arano-Ponce said many Latino families pray the Memorare during difficult times. Additionally, he encourages families grieving from afar to offer a Mass intention for their loved ones. Most importantly, he said, pray.
“My advice to people grieving from afar is stay connected with God through prayer and stay connected with your loved ones,” he said. “Family cohesion and strong emotional support will sustain you.
“Also, we have no doubt that Mother Mary will intercede for us as she did at Cana when they ran out of wine. If we run out of hope, Mother Mary will give us plenty to go on our journey of faith in this life.”