Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

Hugs, handshakes and high-fives: COVID casualties include the most normal gestures

The ways that we express our emotions together in public have become, for now, off limits. As John Gushue writes, a once-comforting hug outside your bubble is now out of bounds.

A once-comforting hug? Outside your bubble, that's now out of bounds.

Caul's Funeral Home on LeMarchant Road in St. John's was the focal point of a cluster that would represent the majority of COVID-19 infections in Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC)

I'm not much one for funeral homes. I never have been. I feel awkward going into them, never more so than when I'm there to comfort a friend and did not actually know the deceased.

Even when I do know the family well, I will confess to being a bit anxious. What do you say, other than the clichés? Those who grieve will know that someone's presence and the simplest of words are all that is needed. All the same, it's not an environment that's particularly comfortable, and I'm not at all like the Codco characters that Cathy Jones and Mary Walsh played in the "Wake of the Week" sketches, always looking for an opportunity to grieve.

When the news broke in March that there had been a COVID-19 outbreak at a St. John's funeral home — in what became known as the Caul's cluster — I wondered about how the virus moved so quickly through that LeMarchant Road building.

I thought about the friends, colleagues and family who gathered there, no doubt in close quarters, standing and mingling in grief, oblivious to the microscopic visitor in its midst. But how did it move so efficiently to others?

My wise wife gave me some insight. "Think about what people do at funeral homes — especially women," she said. "They hug."

A comforting hug — a simple act of affection for those grieving a loss — is not advised for people outside their own 'bubble,' public health officials say. (Shutterstock)

It's true, and no doubt you've seen scenes like this yourself. Someone arrives, sees a surviving member of the deceased's family, and they embrace. Tears flow. Tissues are brought out. Emotions are high, but they're necessary; that's why we have funerals, to help those who've lost someone get through it.

Those who don't hug offer handshakes.

As my colleague Ariana Kelland reported in a feature about the people involved in the funeral home infections (for a brief period, it was the largest cluster reported in Canada), there were two families involved in the outbreak, sharing a common area to rest and eat. 

In a telling detail, one of them noted that the same pen was used for the condolence book — countless hands all touching the same object.

Once innocuous, now off limits

How innocuous all this seemed months ago: hugs and handshakes, the most normal things in the world at a time of grief, and now actions that can pose serious risks. It may be healthy to express emotions at a funeral home, but for now, that cannot happen, at least with the large crowds that people are accustomed to seeing.

Handshakes in public are frowned upon in the age of COVID-19. (Shutterstock)

The Caul's cluster was the hallmark of the beginning of Newfoundland and Labrador's experience of COVID-19; of the 260 positive tests that have been confirmed, at least 177 of them are connected to the cluster — either through direct contact on site, or through transmission in a chain going back to someone who was there. Those numbers crested in the second week of April, about three weeks after the key days when the virus silently moved around the funeral home.

We'll soon be in the final days of May, and the situation is different. On Friday, Newfoundland and Labrador marked its 15th day without a single positive case. People seem to be increasingly eager to move more quickly in getting back to normal.

And yet there's still anxiety. A friend of mine told me she cannot conceive of going into a funeral home — or a concert, or any crowded place — any time soon, no matter what the alert level is.

But people yearn, naturally, for the things they take for granted.

A high-five after seeing a friend in the park? Not for now. (Lonely Island)

One of the things I miss is a Friday ritual at the newsroom in St. John's. The afternoon is a busy period: we're clewing up not only coverage for the day, but things you'll hear, see and read over the weekend and into Monday morning. It's a productive tone, and a genial one. My favourite moment is when my colleague Terry Roberts finishes his work, and makes the rounds with exuberant high-fives for all who raise a hand. It's always an amusing moment, and I miss it.

We're all missing a lot.

I miss going to a spontaneous movie, a twack with the missus on Water Street on a Saturday afternoon, a family dinner out … I'm sure we can all come up with lists of our own.

Gradually, these sorts of things will be restored.

I wonder, though, about how leery some people will be with hugs, handshakes and high-fives when the "new normal" presents itself.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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