Dying has never been lonelier — even if COVID-19 doesn't kill you

How people mourn is changing because of COVID-19. Funerals are smaller and celebrations of life are postponed, but some are turning to live-streaming and the digital world to not let pandemic rob them of a chance to mourn lost loved ones.

'This virus definitely made the worst time of my life even worse'

Sasha McGregor was hurting when her 35-year-old half-brother suddenly died in his sleep, but the worst part was having to tell some family members they couldn't come to his Hamilton funeral because of measures to stop COVID-19 from spreading.

"I'm trying to grieve for my brother and I'm arguing with people who want to come … that was the hardest part," she said.

"Ten people at a funeral for someone who knew thousands of people, it just made it so much sadder because it just looked like nobody was there for him … it was very lonely.' "

Allan Cole, the vice president of Canada's Funeral Service Association, told CBC News there's never been a lonelier time to die.

"These aren't simply in scenarios where people have died of COVID-19," he said.

Sasha McGregor wasn't able to hold the funeral she wanted for her half-brother Jesse Wilson. She says COVID-19 made the worst time of her life even worse. (Submitted by Sasha McGregor)

The novel coronavirus doesn't have to infect or kill someone to make their family suffer after their death.

People are dying alone because of physical distancing. Families can't gather to grieve because of the virus. They can't mourn the way they would want to or in the way a loved one might have wished.

COVID-19 is forcing McGregor and other families to cancel visitations, to push celebration of life ceremonies, along with a chance to grieve, months into the future. And funerals are smaller than they've ever been.

Some are trying to live-stream ceremonies and use technology to sidestep restrictions. It's working for some, allowing families to replay those memories whenever they'd like. But for many, it can't replace gathering at a visitation, standing by a tombstone with family, seeing a loved one for a final time and watching them be lowered into the ground.

"There are still many families impacted by the death of a loved one but are still forced under the distancing requirements to limit the number of attendees," Cole said.

McGregor said what they did for her brother, Jesse Wilson was "kind of a funeral."

Wilson had no service and only 10 people could enter the funeral home and burial. If anyone else showed up, McGregor said the funeral home would have been forced to cancel the ceremony.

Wilson's half-sister, Tori, couldn't be there — neither could many of Wilson's friends, who remember the 6'9" 400-pound father of two kids for his big personality and sense of humour.

McGregor used her phone to live-stream the burial, which has more than 2,000 views on Faceook. COVID-19 forced her to sacrifice being in the moment for Wilson's funeral.

"I'm doing a live-stream, I can't even be mourning at the actual burial because I'm distracted by trying to share it with the people that can't come," she said.

Wilson likely died from sleep apnea, but McGregor said it will take six months to get the autopsy results back because of COVID-19.  And now, they'll have to wait months before properly celebrating his life.

"This virus definitely made the worst time of my life even worse," she said.

Cole said McGregor's experience is common now.

Normally when someone dies, families may organize visitations, a formal ceremony in a house of worship and a procession to a cemetery or crematorium. 

Sometimes, people plan their own funerals.

"What they had in mind, in better times, before the pandemic arrived, is very different from what they're able to have now," Cole said.

One funeral has been linked to four deaths and 58 residents and staff of a long-term care home in Hagersville testing positive for COVID-19.

Virtual ceremonies offer chance to survive online

Now, people like Wayne Irwin are trying online visitations and hosting small ceremonies at the burial site with a live-stream for those who can't attend.

His 90-year-old wife, Flora, died at home in his arms after living with pulmonary fibrosis for years — a lung condition similar to what some COVID-19 patients experience.

Irwin, 75, is a former minister at Centenary United Church (now New Vision United Church) and his wife, a "saint and an angel bundled into one," worked alongside him.

Her viewing consisted of immediate family entering a funeral home two at a time. Those who wanted to touch her had to wear gloves.

Wayne Irwin is mourning the loss of his 90-year-old wife, Flora. He's hosting a virtual, celebration of life for her and hopes it will be a model for other families dealing with death amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Wayne Irwin)

While it certainly wasn't what he imagined for Flora, Irwin said the digital celebration of live hosted through St. Paul's United Church in Dundas, Ont., will help the ceremony live a life of its own.

Using Zoom, family and friends will get to chat with Wayne one-on-one about Flora and an hour later, they will watch a pre-recorded and edited celebration of life, which will be an hour-long video of various speakers and performers in Flora's honour.

And while he prepares the proceedings for his wife, Irwin is also helping other funeral homes plan ceremonies for other families.

He runs Churchweb Support, a service that helps churches run websites. But now, churches in Canada and as far as Australia are asking for more of this tech skills.

"Right now, they're calling us saying, 'How do we do this, how do we do that, how do we do video?' " Wayne said.

"I just want to help them and I only charge them enough to keep it going … I don't want to exploit grandma's five dollars she's putting on the offering plate."

Irwin hopes his wife's celebration of life will serve as a model for other families grappling with death during the pandemic.

"We all contribute whatever we have because that's where fulfilment is in life," he said.

About the Author

Bobby Hristova


Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca