How do you find consolation after the death of a loved one when you can't have a funeral?
My grandmother died recently — not of coronavirus, thankfully, just of old age. She was 95 and had lived a good, full, long life and died at home in her sleep. It was a good death, just in a bad time.
She had 6 children, 11 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, and 2 great-great-grandchildren, plus countless nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews. But we weren’t able to have a funeral for her, nor even the closure of a graveside service. Instead, her four living children and their spouses shared a few memories of her life with each other at her grave, and then her grandchildren filed by one by one, with plenty of distance between us, to say our goodbyes.
We didn’t linger to talk afterward. There were plenty of tears shed, but none of the familiar physical acts of consolation — no hugs, no hands grasped. Of course, our physical distance was motivated by the same love and affection that would have prompted embraces in other times, but that didn’t make it any easier — especially for my kids and her other great-grandchildren. They wanted to hug their cousins, aunts, and uncles. They wanted to say goodbye to their Mamaw. And most of all, they wanted the familiar rites of a funeral.
Honestly, I was surprised by how upset they were that there would be no funeral. They weren’t consoled by the promise of a memorial celebration later this summer — that part was no surprise, really, since their whole worlds have been put on hold, with vague promises of “later.” They would go back to school “later,” then they wouldn’t. They would have their soccer season, cheer tryouts, spring play, 8th-grade banquet, boat races, Medieval Feast “later” — now, they know they won’t have any of those things. Not later. Not ever, actually. Yes, there will be other plays, other seasons, other banquets — but not these. These, they will never get back.
They’ve all been grieving, just like the rest of us — not for a life on pause, but for real experiences, real friendships, real hopes and dreams that have been truly crushed by this pandemic and the ensuing quarantine. It’s not a trivial grief. But somehow the loss of this last, final, fundamental rite — the funeral of a beloved grandmother — was too much to bear. As my 7-year-old Lincoln said, “but Mommy, it’s not human!”
It does feel inhumane to know that my grandmother’s death came and went so quietly, with no honor, no recognition, no closure. But pandemics are fundamentally inhumane. All the stories I’ve read of the Black Plague have been rushing back to me in these months, stories of panic and fear driving people to burn Jews and “witches” and anyone, really, out of desperation to escape the plague. That could be us, I know. Human beings are not fundamentally better or more compassionate than we were in 1348. But we do have more advanced medical and scientific knowledge. And it’s that knowledge that compels us to act in ways contrary to our instincts — to isolate when we naturally want to be together. To resist the comfort of human touch and the consolation of gathering together for closure.
I reminded my kids that the people dying from COVID-19 are doing so alone, with no family, no priest, no pastor, not even the final consolation of a hand to hold, because it’s the only way to keep the rest of us safe. Just as our current sacrifices, big and small, are acts of love that run completely contrary to our nature — it seems inhumane because it feels so wrong.
But loss and grief aren’t a zero sum game, especially in a time like this one. These losses are real, for our children and for us. The grief is real. My 7-year-old has shed countless tears over his school’s play being cancelled — the very first play he’d ever auditioned for, the first part he’d ever gotten. All that excitement, the fear, the nerves, the elation — gone. Just taken, overnight, by “the corona.” That grief is real. For him, it’s one of the greatest losses he’s had to face, and there’s no consolation for it. I tried, at first, to offer the play next year as a consolation, but he wasn’t assuaged. After all, it wouldn’t be the same play. He wouldn’t have the same part. And to be honest — do we know, for sure, that there will even be school next year?
None of us knows anything for sure right now, except that this is hard and painful all around. I’ve realized this last week that it’s not helping my kids to minimize or attempt to assuage their pain and grief — all it does is make them feel resentful, unheard, and alone. They need me to acknowledge, out loud, that they are losing things permanently, forever. Lincoln will never be a Munchkin in his elementary school’s production of Wizard of Oz the first year he was old enough to audition. Sienna will never get an 8th-grade banquet, something she’s looked forward to for years. Charlotte will never have 5th-grade boat races. Liam will never be knighted at the 4th-grade Medieval Feast. Isaac will never graduate from Pre-K 3 to Pre-K 4. And none of us will ever go to our Mamaw’s funeral. These things will never be again, and it’s okay to grieve their loss.
Later, after the grief has passed and the pandemic is easing, we can remind each other why we did it. But right now, I think it’s only human to let your children grieve, and to grieve with them. It’s actually a fundamentally human response — the Bible even tells us there’s a time to mourn, and I believe this is one of those times. Trying to seek or provide false consolation doesn’t help, because there’s no real consolation to be had until later. Our hope is that all these losses will result in some fundamental gains — not only in saving human lives, but in other lessons and joys God wants to give us.