The COVID-19 pandemic has not only changed the way we live our lives, but also the way we view death, say some experts.
More than 12,000 Canadians have so far died due to COVID-19.
Death’s inevitable companion — grief — has become more difficult for many people. But a funeral director and a grieving expert say the mourning families they have met during the pandemic have also become more appreciative of life.
“Probably in all cultures and religious groups across the world, in the time of death and crisis, there is a ritual,” says Stephen Fleming, a psychology professor at Toronto’s York University. He has authored numerous articles and book chapters on grief.
“The ritual is often in the form of certain behaviours and thoughts that have symbolic meaning. When that happens, we’re able to appreciate community, we’re able to appreciate safety where we can express our emotions, and we have the realization that death has occurred.”
But during the pandemic, Fleming says, saying goodbye to loved ones over the phone instead of holding their hands as they die has made grieving far more painful.
“That kind of human compassion and attachment that’s missing can lead to someone with a monumental sense of loneliness, can lay the seeds for depression as well.”
Restrictions on funeral services in most provinces have also challenged funeral directors with how to comfort and pray with sick patients and performing end-of-life rituals.
“As funeral professionals, we meet with the family and we plan out what they’d like to do — their services, their burial, cremation. And we guide them through that process,” says David Root of the Alberta Funeral Service Association.
As families miss out on more traditional funeral practices for their loved ones, it has become more important to talk with them about coping with loss, says Root, who is also director at Pierson’s Funeral Service in Calgary.
“‘We have definitely seen families struggle with the guilt of not being able to be at their loved one’s service, their mom or dad’s … service, because they just can’t cross the U.S.-Canadian border, for example.”
Generally, Root says, funeral professionals and grief specialists working in Canada have observed that North America is a death-denying society.
“We kind of deny our own mortality and death tends to be more of a clinical experience. Individuals go to hospitals or care centers, and then pass away in those locations.
“Outside of North America, death happens more at home and with family.”
But the way Canadians view death has changed since COVID-19 hit Canada in March, Root and Fleming say.
“The families that we serve are starting to see the value of grieving and … that death is what it is. We can’t change it,” Root says.
They both say the pandemic has made Canadians more appreciative of life, because they’ve been restricted from seeing each other and talking to each other and being with people as they die.
“As a nation, I think and hope that we will retain these lessons after this vaccine is distributed,” Fleming adds.
“There’s purpose in the pain. I hope this country lets COVID inform our lives, not to define it.”
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press
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