After real loss, virtual comfort must do

[The New York Times has compiled short stories from people who have lost a loved one during the pandemic about their experiences of mourning. Many of the stories highlight the abilities, and limitations, of media technology to overcome physical isolation from other people at an extremely difficult time. Warning: Reading these stories may evoke intense emotions; they did for me. See the original version for two more images, and a related story, “A 24-Hour Virtual Vigil Will Mourn Americans Who Have Died Of Coronavirus,” from Gothamist (that event is scheduled for today, Wednesday May 20, 2020). –Matthew]

[Image: A family sits shiva remotely on Zoom for an elderly relative who died of heart failure in New Canaan, Conn. Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis, via Getty Images]

After Real Loss, Virtual Comfort Must Do

Readers talk about mourning loved ones from afar.

By Rachel L. Harris, Susan Mermelstein and Lisa Tarchak (Ms. Harris and Ms. Tarchak are senior editorial assistants. Ms. Mermelstein is an editor for the Letters section.)
April 29, 2020

In an essay about attending via video the burial of her mother, Jill Bialosky, a poet and an executive editor at W.W. Norton & Co., describes mourning at a time when travel isn’t safe and services are limited to a few family members.

We asked readers who had recently lost someone they cared about how they’ve managed, both physically and emotionally. For some, it has meant sitting shiva using Zoom, asking priests to livestream services or being the solo member of a funeral procession.

A selection of their stories follow. They have been edited for length and clarity.

Sheltering in place but grieving together

On March 29, in the middle of the shutdown, I lost the woman who had been the love of my life for 44 years. She had dementia for at least a decade and was bedbound (but mostly happy) since 2017. We will hold a memorial service at a later date.

I can’t let myself think about how hard it is to mourn without anyone giving me a hug, without a shoulder to cry on. I’ve been spending time going through old pictures, and every day I post something new on Facebook. The little comments, hearts and “love” icons are very comforting; no one asks me to explain or describe anything. Being awash in all those images makes me happy. If I shut my eyes I can see her in heaven, in the jeans she used to love wearing so much. — Rebecca MacLean, New York

Our family’s time is now marked as B.C. and A.D. B.C. is “Before Coronavirus” and A.D. is “After her Death.” Not knowing when we could memorialize my mother, we chose to write a tribute, similar to what would have been delivered as her eulogy. When I finally worked up the courage to hit “Send” and email the tribute to my entire office, the wellspring of comfort that flowed my way was overwhelming. In B.C., I would have mentioned a tidbit of the service to a peer around the water cooler. In A.D., I allowed myself to be vulnerable. — Susana Limon, University Park, Md.

My uncle passed away on April 3 from Covid-19 and my family couldn’t grieve in person. We sat shiva virtually for days. However, we didn’t feel robbed of a funeral. With Zoom we could connect with family to mourn and remember. We shared stories, cried, laughed and were reminded again of how wonderful and supportive our family is. We even saw some benefits to virtual grieving: Geography wasn’t a barrier to entry; old friends who live far away and may not have flown in were able to share stories many of us had never heard, leading to a deeper understanding of my uncle’s life. We could easily tailor different Zoom meetings to specific groups (work colleagues, tennis friends, extended family). — Eric Phillips, Brooklyn

Coping with death ‘grievously unfair’

My mom was sent to the emergency room for low blood pressure and low oxygen levels in early April. She had already been on lockdown in her assisted-living home for weeks prior. She asked us (over the phone), “Why am I here?” No one was permitted to be with her or visit her. We thought she would be discharged but a few days later her test came back positive for Covid-19. A nurse called us one night and held the phone to my mom’s ear while my daughter and I told her how much we loved her, how everyone was thinking of her and how we were giving her kisses all over her precious face.

My beloved mom passed away on April 14. The anguish we feel is all-encompassing, the grief heart-wrenching. We feel disbelief, cheated. Nobody so loved should have had to die alone. — Marla Brandstadter, Massapequa, N.Y.

Initially, the funeral director said they could still allow a wake for my mother with up to 25 people, per state order. The next day we were told that there could be no more than 10 people in attendance at the funeral home. We held a small service there using technology so that others could “attend.” Ten of us and the priest were in the room, safely distanced from one another. My daughter read from Proverbs, my sister read a poem written by Maya Angelou. Our beautiful mother, 85, who had been unable to speak or care for herself for the previous three years, was gone and we could not be together to hug, cry, laugh, share her stories or ours.

Following the graveside service, we split up the plants and sent home the flowers in glass vases. And then we all left, heading to our respective homes, as there was no place to gather. — Deb Oriola, Niskayuna, N.Y.

I’ve lost three relatives to Covid-19 and there could be no funerals or family gatherings. As a police officer for a short period, one of the first things we were taught is that when somebody has died they simply aren’t there anymore. It’s just a body. That concept helped me get through dealing with death sometimes grievously unfair. When my relatives died their souls were gone and what was left was irrelevant. They don’t belong to anyone. Farewells are over. You are here because they were here, and for that you should always be thankful. — James Perry Thurber III, Mountain View, Calif.

‘The absence of this Mass leaves our souls speechless’

Losing our grandmother to Covid-19 has been devastating. Far harder, however, has been the inability of our family to physically gather and to have to postpone the opportunity to celebrate her life with a funeral. Ritual is the language of our souls, and the absence of this Mass leaves our souls speechless. — Aaron Alme, Whitefish, Mont.

My father was in the I.C.U. the week before he died, and my sister, mother and I were asked to leave. My mother and sister were allowed in just before he died and FaceTimed me. I can still see my father — he was awake, but could not breathe. Poor Dad. His eyes looked so upset. I didn’t go home to mourn and watched all of it from afar, his funeral in a livestream. I stayed away from my family for safety, mine and my daughter’s. It has been horrible. My family really doesn’t understand why I chose to stay back. I don’t know if I understand completely. — Gwen McQueeney, Middletown, Md.

‘Although far from anything we ever imagined, there was a beauty in its simplicity’

I lost my mother, 86, on April 3 to chronic kidney disease. The mausoleum permitted only the funeral director, two priests and me. A neighbor in my mom’s retirement community suggested having the hearse drive through the community on the way to the mausoleum, and the funeral home agreed to videotape the procession and the entombment. On April 6, a bright, sunny day, I walked behind the hearse wearing my kilt (we are Scottish immigrants). Many of my mom’s neighbors stood outside their homes (at a safe distance) as we passed. My niece arranged to have a bagpiper play. Although far from anything we ever imagined, there was beauty in its simplicity. — Sam McPherson, Jersey City

My Jewish grandmother, a lifelong New Yorker, died on April 1 in Florida. Her body was hurriedly flown back to Long Island so that she could be buried next to my grandfather in the plots they picked out decades ago. None of our family was allowed to be in attendance — some could not travel and some in New York had tested positive for Covid-19. The rabbi was supposed to FaceTime my uncle, who would then record the ceremony to share with the rest of us later, but nearly hurricane-like winds and rain made video impossible. With no family members present, virtually or physically, my grandmother was laid to rest.

We held a family call over Zoom later that day but with nothing tangible and few details to go on, we reminisced a little but also talked about the bread we were baking, the books we’ve been reading and the myriad other ways we’ve been keeping sane. My cousin’s baby laughed and jabbered and distracted us. — Jessica Lobl, Honolulu

There were just a few of us at the cemetery — me, one of my sisters and her husband, plus the shomer, who had sat with my father’s body until the burial, and the funeral director — all in masks and gloves. The rabbi gave a lovely service from under her white mask. We set up an iPad with Zoom so loved ones could see and participate in the service. He was laid to rest next to his wife, my stepmother. Hopefully they will find each other and share their quarantine happily. — Carolyn Ruth Kaplan, M.D., Atlanta

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