Despite losing our rituals, we can still find ways to grieve during the pandemic
Being with community, meaningful rituals, and a willingness to be with one’s sorrow are integral to grieving
This first-person essay by Robert Braid, a counsellor who specializes in grief and end of life care, is part of CBC's Opinion section.
At 92 years old, John was admitted to a palliative unit with a terminal diagnosis. When he first entered the hospital in July 2020, he was permitted three visitors at a time, which allowed for his family to be present and to grieve with him at this final stage of life.
But as COVID-19 restrictions tightened in the fall, John's family received devastating news: he would only be allowed one visitor. A family man with 18 great-grandchildren, he saw his in-person support network reduced to one.
John died in November. His family could not be there to surround him with love, nor could they gather together to lean on each other for support, leaving many of them with complicated grief.
In a world that is constantly changing — and at an especially rapid rate as we continually face shifting pandemic concerns and restrictions — grief is our innate response to the losses we encounter. For the grief response to arise, enabling us to heal and adapt to our new reality, certain conditions typically must be in place, such as being held in community, performing meaningful ritual, and the willingness to be with one's sorrow.
When my mom died over 20 years ago, our family poured in from across the country within 24 hours. Their presence was integral in establishing that sacred time of grieving where we came together to acknowledge and validate each other's sorrows. During the week-long vigil that followed my mother's passing, we all gathered under one roof. Being in such close proximity allowed us to truly feel held. Arms were draped around each other, uncles and aunts sat shoulder-to-shoulder at tables, and cousins slept on mattresses on the floor. You were never left alone.
During this pandemic, not only are we tragically grieving the loss of loved ones, we're also confronted by a sense of loss over the traditional funerals and family gatherings that we're accustomed to. Acknowledging and grieving the loss of our traditional ceremonies can allow us to find our way to being open about creating alternative ways to honour, to celebrate and to remember the lives of our loved ones.
I've heard countless touching stories of ceremonies where attendees were able to participate safely in person, gather together around their screens from home, and individual rituals held on the same day, at the same time — all of them creating a sense of community where grief could be shared.
At a ceremony held for the funeral of Greg, seven family members gathered around my colleague, Karla Combres, a life cycle celebrant, in a funeral hall that once could hold 500. From a laptop screen, a grid of a dozen faces peered into the service. In honour of Greg's love of fishing and the outdoors, his family placed a bowl of water at the centre of the ceremony, and everyone, in-person and online, held in their hands a bough of spruce, imbuing it with well-wishes and love. After each family member spoke, they placed their boughs in the bowl of water, where they would be kept and released into a sunny lake in the summertime. People who joined online were invited to share stories with Karla beforehand, which she weaved into the ceremony, and to place their pieces of spruce outdoors in a sentimental location. In this way, the family felt held and supported by those who joined virtually, and the online viewers felt included.
At a funeral service for Claire, that was held exclusively online, each person in attendance was asked to submit pictures and stories. Within the comfort of their homes, family members and friends collected photos, candles, flowers and other items that held significance, and built altars next to their computers. As the ceremony began, they all lit a candle, and together they watched the slideshow presentation that had been created from their submissions while the facilitator told stories about Claire. Others wrote messages in the chat about what they'd miss most about her. At the end of the ceremony, they all held their candles up to their screens and blew them out together, marking the end of a life.
Although the death of a loved one is often the most acknowledged source of grief, grief is not exclusive to death. It is a constant presence in our lives. We are currently experiencing a massive amount of change and loss — that of routine, jobs, freedoms, friendships. The willingness to acknowledge that you may be feeling a sense of loss is the first step to opening to grief and the healing that follows.
It also allows us to recognize grief in others and to be compassionate about the fact that we are all being impacted by loss, perhaps in very different ways, and yet we are connected by this shared experience.
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