Walk With Me (#25): A Plague of Grief

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.

Dear Asha,

My family and I moved abroad over a dozen years ago, though we try to get back to the States to visit family once a year, or at least we did before COVID. Living abroad and having aging parents was always going to present some challenges sooner or later. Leaving aside that the prospect of returning to the US has interested me less and less in recent years, I have no desire to go there now unless/until things are under control.

While getting to the funerals within the US will be challenging right now(and should probably be impossible), I certainly don’t want to go through the rigamarole and expense of getting there and getting back (two week quarantine at my expense, which I can afford, but not really the point)to risk COVID infection.

How do I make sure my family is clear that I won’t be attending any funerals in the immediate future? It would probably be true even if I lived in the US; it’s just more certain since I don’t. How can I support my people, given the increasing grief all around, without actually being there?

SN

Dear SN,

You are certainly right that there is increasing grief all around these days, particularly in the United States. We are being decimated by the virus, with no real support or protection from our federal government and no definable end in sight. Many of us are on a steady diet of anxiety and sorrow, even if no one in our immediate family has yet been infected.

Still, I would say that if no one in your family is yet infected, or actively sick with a serious case of COVID, then now is the time to have the necessary conversations. Given the list of bad timing options, right now may be the least horrible. I realize that’s not saying much, but here we are.

The reality is, as you say, that regardless of being overseas or not, the likelihood of you being able to attend services or a burial during COVID is practically non-existent. In fact, people insisting on the usual in-person services have created super spreader events. As much as we want to gather together in person to mourn our loved ones, it makes no sense to put multiple lives at risk, including the staff of funeral homes and burial sites.

Funeral homes are coming up with creative ways to help families grieve more safely during COVID — live streaming services and burials, drive-by viewings, virtual memory sharing — so there are options that you could be central to even from where you are. Zoom memorial services may not be what anyone would have wanted in a perfect world, but they are possible and can allow many people who might not otherwise have been able to attend the chance to participate.

Talk to your parents and other family members now about what everybody wants, and if it’s possible to honor those desires safely. Share with them the CDC Funeral Guidance for Individuals and Families as a jumping-off point for discussion. Will it be an easy or comfortable conversation? Probably not. Talking about death rarely is in our culture. But I believe that if you approach it from a place of loving them and wanting the best for everyone during this unprecedented time, you will work your way around to an understanding.

If the first time you bring it up everyone shies away or shuts down, don’t give up. Acknowledge that this a scary conversation, allow them some time to process their fear, but let them know that you want to revisit the topic soon. Set a date for another talk, or at least make a concrete plan to check back in at a specified time to set a date. If everyone makes it through COVID alive it’s still not a wasted effort. Eventually, your parents will die and you might not be able to get there in time. Having a family plan for if someone dies from COVID gives you something to work with if you need a similar plan for other reasons.

The greater concern, from my perspective, is how to support your family members in their grief when you cannot be physically present with them. There is practical support they may need — sorting through belongings, figuring out finances, executing wills — that you can hire people for. I have been living in dread of having to pack up my parents’ house if my mother dies sooner rather than later, but I just found out there are companies that do it all for you, called estate liquidators. You can literally set aside any items you know for sure you want to keep, as well as personal and financial papers, and hand them the keys. They will sort, sell, or toss everything else, and hand you a check at the end. You can also use them if an elderly parent dies and the living parent wants to move out to a smaller place, or an assisted living facility.

Do not let anyone in the family emotionally kill themselves over mundane details and stuff. It’s not necessary and it does not honor your dead.

Do, however, think about how to emotionally support your family after someone dies. Set up weekly conference calls or Zoom calls to check in with each other. Encourage everyone to get online grief counseling, or participate in an online grief support group. Grief is a slow, winding process, and being present with people who are grieving is an actual skillset. People train to do it well. Don’t beat yourself up if you feel at a loss how to emotionally support your family through grief; most of us aren’t trained or qualified for that.

Not to mention, you will be in the midst of your own complicated grieving. Make sure you are getting the support that you need to process your grief when the time comes. If you are unsupported you will not be able to help your family.

My brother actually died recently. It was not from COVID, and I wouldn’t have been likely to attend any services even in the absence of a pandemic. That bridge got napalmed a long time ago. However, he did have a robust community, a partner, and our mother who are all mourning him. He was cremated, and his community will be holding a memorial bike ride in his honor when spring comes. Given the role of biking in his life and his place in the bike community in D.C. where we grew up, that is an option that honors who he was more than any traditional memorial service.

In your conversations with your family, I encourage you to think outside of the box. If your parents will be cremated, can the ashes be shared among the family so that each person can spread them in a place that symbolizes something important about the relationship for that person? Can someone who can be present now plant a tree in honor of them, maybe even fertilized with the ashes if they are cremated, so you can all rest under their shade long after this pandemic is over?

I suspect it will be a long, long time before the world will recover not just from this virus, but from the plague of grief that accompanies it. The lives, livelihoods, community, and connections that have all been lost can’t be replaced. Some can be rebuilt, but they will be different. The pre-pandemic world is gone.

Perhaps that also means that our traditional notions of grieving are gone, too. Generally, our initial grieving is dramatic and communal, but quickly individual mourners are left to their own devices. If their grief is long and deep they have to swim those waters alone, and are often told they should have just gotten to the other side already.

I don’t come from the kind of religious tradition that has beliefs or restrictions around what needs to be done in the days immediately following a death, so I don’t know much about them, nor do I think they aren’t important. What this moment may offer us, however, is the opportunity to develop traditions of care and grieving that last long after death, that honor and provide a pathway for us to share the winding road of grief from beginning to end. What an unexpected gift that would be.

I applaud your desire to keep everyone, including yourself, safe during these dangerous times. The necessary conversations and emotional work required to navigate death and grieving safely can, I believe, bear new, nourishing fruit. They usually do, in my experience.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

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