Grieving in a pandemic: How Calgarians are finding ways to say goodbye

Calgarians cannot gather for funerals like they used to, so they are finding other ways to cope, often using virtual means.

'Her best friends couldn't be there,' says man who lost mother

The church where Cajetan Viegas's mother Estraliza's funeral was held in December 2020. Albertans across the province are working through losing a loved one amongst COVID-19 restrictions. (Submitted by Cajetan Viegas)

When Calgarian Cajetan Viegas's father passed away in 2018, there were so many people in attendance at the funeral that people stood together at the back of the church, while others lined up out the door.

At his mother's funeral this December — at that same church in Calgary — there were 11 people in attendance, including the priest.

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This was in line with provincial restrictions announced Dec. 8, which currently limit funeral services to 10 people in a public place both in and outdoors. Receptions are also banned.

When the first wave of COVID-19 hit in mid-March, burials were capped at 50 people. However the number has fluctuated throughout the year.

"I know my mother, she would probably say, 'I want everybody at my funeral.' We could not make that happen for her," said Cajetan.

 Cajetan's mother, Estreliza Viegas, passed away suddenly on Dec. 7.

Cajetan describes her as a community beacon, a great cook and a talented seamstress. She was well loved across the world, and has siblings and family in Africa and India.

"She's done a lot in her life, but foremost and most important with her was family," he said.

Pictured above are Estraliza and Basil Veigas (left) and Estraliza Veigas (right). The couple passed away within two years of each other. (Submitted by Cajetan Viegas)

Cajetan says he understands why the limit on funerals are in place, but that it doesn't make his experience any easier.

In their immediate family, there were more than 10 people, and they had to pick and choose people who could attend.

"And then you have to play damage control after you're already damaged," he says.

You have to play damage control after you're already damaged,- Cajetan Viegas

"You've got people crying on the phone versus crying visiting mom, getting a chance to say their final farewell. Her best friends couldn't be there."

Cajetan says it's also challenging to not be able to physically comfort family and friends that do not live with him as they grieve.

"I want people to come over and tell me their stories about my mom ... you need to have that time with family, friends so that you get it all out but we didn't get that," he said.

"Anybody else that has lost a loved one during COVID is not going to get that."

Cajetan says what comforts him is the knowledge his parents are together again. As well, he says the family will have a gathering for both parents once it is safe to do so.

Grieving virtually

While Cajetan and his immediate family were able to attend his mother's funeral, there were many who did not make the in-person list.

One way that funeral homes are making it possible for people to "attend" is through livestreaming the service.

Evan Strong, president of Evan J. Strong funeral services in Calgary, says they offer livestreams and recorded services for funerals, as well as live events. He says many funeral homes are doing the same.

"It's still very important for people to be able to participate in a funeral service or memorial and for friends and relatives to express condolences and support the family," he said.

He says some families are even choosing to have staggered funeral services, with different groups coming at different times of day.

Others, he says, are choosing to postpone a funeral altogether.

Elaine Munce (right) is a counsellor and director at Hospice Calgary. She lost her older sister Monica Ekvall at the onset of the pandemic in March. (Submitted by Elaine Munce)

Elaine Munce is the director of community hospice services at Hospice Calgary which provides counselling, support and groups programs for grief and end of life.

She says the way they deliver support has changed dramatically since the onset of the pandemic.

One support group they run is for advanced cancer patients.

"Some people have actually Zoomed in from their death bed with their caregiver ... and so they're able to connect with all the people in their support group that they've built a relationship with over time," said Munce.

Munce says there are other things that make their work at Sage Centre and Rosedale Hospice harder like decreased staffing and restrictions on visitors.

Munce says that the mental toll of the pandemic has also made grieving harder.

"It's more difficult for people ... that universal grief that is going on right now is impacting their personal story of death and loss," said Munce.

Monica Ekvall, who passed away in March (centre), and her niece Lauren Munce (right) with family during Christmas 2019. (Submitted by Elaine Munce)

Personal loss

Munce, who usually acts as director, has taken on counselling work, because she says, "the need is so great during COVID for family members who are grieving."

While she is comforting those who are grieving, she must also contend with her own grief.

Her older sister Monica Ekvall died in mid-March and the family has yet to have a funeral.

Since then, Munce has been separated from most of her family, including her 90-year-old mother.

Her mother is at high risk of COVID-19 so they could not visit in person but they found a small way to remember her outside the window of her mother's residence.

"One of my sister's in law in B.C. had sent a photo collage, a video, of my [deceased] sister's Christmas last year with us ... my daughter held that video up on her phone as we were doing an outside visit out the window," said Munce.

"My mom was laughing and crying as she was watching this ... as I was watching my mother I'm just bawling my eyes out ... It was kind of the closest moment that we came to having something that looked like a funeral."

Munce says they plan on honouring her sister's life when they are able to be together again as a family in-person.

Guidance through grief

One way people are working through the grieving process during the pandemic is by reaching out to a death doula.

Sarah Kerr is a death doula and ritual healing practitioner in Calgary who says her work helps people contend with death and loss.

"When people reach a point where it's clear that death is coming …they don't have any skills or any knowledge to meet death," she said.

"That's where I come in, I help people decide and really discern what they really want in their death and from their death."

She says she's worked with people who haven't been able to be with family members that were sick and dying and who couldn't attend funerals.

Sarah Kerr is a death doula in Calgary who helps guide people through grief and loss. (Submitted by Sarah Kerr)

She says video conferencing has made her work possible. She has also gotten creative with connecting people if they cannot be together.

"What I've been doing with people is this idea of setting up a proxy. I worked with one woman whose husband was in long-term care. He was palliative and she was going to be allowed in when the care staff imagined he had one more day to live," says Kerr.

"What she did was set up a chair ... and every day she would sit and talk to him … she said to him, what you wish she could say to him. She read to him the things she thought he would enjoy reading. She really did as much as she could to put herself in that place where she could do what she would like if she was in person."

Kerr says it made a "huge difference" to her client. She uses this proxy method to help people who are unable to be with their loved ones, whether because they are sick or because of funeral restrictions.

"There's some powerful tools we can use, really ritual tools that help people find a way to make sense of what's happening because it's so overwhelming," she says.

Kerr says it's been a tough year for grieving but that honouring death is important right now, even in small ways.