For an entire year, pandemic restrictions meant we couldn’t say goodbye to our loved ones the way we wanted. Often, we were unable to be with them when they died—and to make matters worse, we weren’t able to gather to hold the funerals that would help us mourn properly. Whether we could only gather with a few close family members, or we watched a small service online, or we skipped the funeral altogether, pandemic funerals have often been unsatisfying and left us feeling unresolved grief.
Now, grief researchers say that holding that missing memorial service, even a year or more later, can still be a good idea to help us heal.
Funerals are for the living, because we need them
Many of us who lost a loved one during the pandemic have not been able to fully process the loss, no matter whether the cause of death was COVID-19 or something else entirely. Here are some of the things people who suffered a family death in 2020 have told Legacy:
- “No funerals were allowed in the state at that time… It still doesn’t seem real.”
- “It was awful not having loved ones, friends, former coworkers, etc., in attendance at the funeral, which was five people in person, plus the officiant, and livestreamed online.”
- “Most of my family is in Massachusetts, and I’m in Arizona. They did some sort of drive-thru ceremony in Massachusetts that was at a time that didn’t work for me here in Arizona, and of course I haven’t flown back there yet. So, to me, it’s really weird, because it feels like it didn’t actually happen.”
- “The lack of being able to hug my sister-in-law, niece, and nephew, in particular, was painful.”
Some of these people were able to attend a small, socially distanced funeral and others weren’t, but they all missed out on a crucial part of the grieving process. Funerals are about much more than the practical consideration of burying a recently deceased person. Here are some of the purposes funerals serve:
- They help us understand that the death really happened.
- They bring many people together to comfort and support each other.
- They give us a chance to hug, which is clinically proven to reduce stress.
- They allow us to celebrate and honor an important life.
- They encourage us to mourn, cry, and express our grief in a supportive place.
Everyone who couldn’t have a full funeral, with no attendance restrictions and all loved ones able to attend, missed out on at least some of those things. Those who could only watch a funeral via a video stream missed out on more of them. And for those who weren’t able to attend a funeral at all, it may still be hard to grasp the fact that the death even happened.
For some, missing out on the funeral ritual is contributing to more severe grief than normal.
Research shows we’re grieving worse this year
Psychology professors Robert A. Neimeyer and Sherman A. Lee have been studying grief among people who lost someone during the pandemic.
Dr. Neimeyer, the director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition and professor emeritus at the University of Memphis, is known as the author of the Techniques of Grief Therapy series. Dr. Lee, of Christopher Newport University in Virginia, collaborated with Dr. Neimeyer to study 831 American adults who suffered the loss of a loved one during the COVID-19 restrictions of 2020.
Their research, published in the academic journal Death Studies under the title “Circumstances of the death and associated risk factors for severity and impairment of COVID-19 grief,” found that the occurrence of dysfunctional grief this past year has been far higher than usual.
Dysfunctional grief is a severe form of grief that makes it hard to carry on with our normal lives. People experiencing it might wish they could die so they can be with their loved ones, and they might feel unable to take care of their families or do their jobs.
In normal times, approximately five to 10 percent of grievers experience clinical levels of dysfunctional grief. In 2020, the study found, that number had skyrocketed to an alarming two-thirds of the people surveyed.
“Even as the specter of the coronavirus pandemic begins to recede in many nations,” Dr. Neimeyer says, “our studies of Americans who have lost a loved one to COVID-19 suggest that it will be followed by a second ‘shadow pandemic’ —one of acute and potentially lingering grief.” That grief, he says, is accompanied by “significant anguish and impairment in people’s ability to function in key roles as a parent, partner, friend or worker.”
Drs. Neimeyer and Lee found this dysfunctional grief to be caused by several factors specific to the pandemic, including the inability to be with a loved one while they died and unhappiness with a small or nonexistent funeral service.
But there’s good news, too: The experts say we don’t have to live with this excessive grief forever. Dr. Neimeyer tells Legacy that grievers can still get back what they missed when they couldn’t have a full funeral. “We have an opportunity to press rewind,” he says, “and play it again in a more satisfying way.”
It’s never too late: Hold the memorial service now
That opportunity can begin right now. The pandemic isn’t entirely over, but with more people vaccinated every day and warm weather making outdoor events easier, it’s safer to gather than it was just a few months ago. Many families decided to postpone the funeral altogether until a time when they could be with loved ones, and the summer and fall of 2021 offer that chance.
The memorial service you have several months after a death won’t be the same as the funeral you might have had immediately after a death. But it can still be a very healing ceremony that serves all the important purposes of a funeral. It can still bring family and friends together from all over the country and allow them to hug, cry, and share favorite stories and photos.
A memorial service is different from a funeral in that the body is not present. But you can display photos and favorite possessions of the deceased, and these can help with that important step of coming to terms with the reality of the death. Even just the simple act of attending a memorial service – something many weren’t able to do during the pandemic – goes a long way toward that understanding.
Planning a memorial service can seem like a big job, but you don’t have to do it alone. A funeral home can help you plan a memorial service, even if it’s been months – or a year or more – since the death. They can help you secure the right location, arrange photos and other memorabilia, organize any speeches and readings, and all the other details that go along with planning an event.
While many families are already planning their summer memorial services – and a few even had a service already this spring – some families are reluctant to revisit the feelings they associate with a funeral all these months later. Here are a few hesitations Legacy has heard:
- “We’re all just ready to move on from this year.”
- “It just feels weird to me to do something a year later.”
- “I don’t want to reschedule because things are still so iffy.”
- “Doing a memorial might just bring up the hard parts.”
Those are all valid feelings. While we all grieve, everyone experiences their own grief differently. Even if you didn’t feel satisfied with a socially distanced or video funeral, maybe redoing it in person now doesn’t feel like what you need. And for some, planning a memorial service now just isn’t an option – maybe the rest of the family doesn’t want to do it, or can’t gather at this time, or maybe you’re simply not the right person to do the planning (e.g. you’re an in-law or a friend rather than an immediate family member).
While a funeral is an important ritual, it’s not the only ritual you can do to help work through your grief. Dr. Neimeyer suggests approaching the situation by asking: “What can I do? Not what can’t I do. What is feasible here?” So if you’re not in a position to plan a memorial service – or you and your family just don’t want to do it – you can turn your thoughts to what will work for you. Here are a few ideas:
- Hold a ceremony to dedicate the headstone. This is a common ritual in Judaism, when family and friends come together for the unveiling of the monument. Prayers and scripture are read, and family members might say a few words about the deceased. No matter what your faith, you can bring loved ones together when the headstone is placed at the grave. Seeing their name and dates carved in stone can be an important step in coming to terms with the death, and gathering together can offer a supportive environment for that step.
- Gather to celebrate the deceased’s birthday. Many families do this for a lost loved one’s milestone birthday, but you can do it no matter what age they would have been turning. It’s a perfect opportunity to tell stories, look at photos, and share memories.
- Have a family dinner. A ritual in honor of a life doesn’t have to be an elaborate affair. It can be as simple as going out to dinner, or having a dinner at a family member’s house. You might decide to leave one empty chair at the table to symbolize your lost loved one. With your loss so fresh, the conversation is bound to turn to memories that you had together.
- Get the cousins together. Not every memorial gathering has to involve all the family and friends. Maybe it’s been a while since the cousins (or the siblings, or the ladies, etc.) got together. You can invite them for a drink or a meal, and you can all remember your loved one together.
- Create an online memorial. This can mean building a website in the deceased’s honor, or it could be as simple as turning their social media profile into a memorial. You can invite family and friends to contribute, making it a place for everyone’s favorite memories and photos.
- Look at photos. There are some remembrance rituals that you can do all by yourself. Even if the rest of the family doesn’t want to have a memorial service, or you’re not in a position to plan one, you can mindfully take some time to sit with your memories of the deceased. Look through old photos of them, whether they’re in a photo album or on social media. Think about your favorite memories together. Thank the person for the good they brought to your life.
- Make a memorial donation. You can contribute to your loved one’s favorite charity in their honor, or if you don’t know what that is, you can contribute to your own favorite charity and indicate it’s in their memory. Or you can have memorial trees planted in their name – visit legacy.com/trees to learn more.
- Write a condolence letter. Buy a nice card and sit down to handwrite a condolence to the spouse, parent, or child of the deceased. It will be even more treasured if you share a specific memory or a favorite story. You can include a photo, too, if you have one. It doesn’t matter if it’s been months since the death and you never sent a condolence at the time. Dr. Neimeyer reminds us that there’s no time limit on sending a condolence. In fact, it might be especially impactful later, he says: “We tend to get a lot of support in the first few weeks, and then that tapers off.” Many grievers deeply appreciate those who reach out after those first few weeks. And the act of writing down your favorite memories will be healing for you, too.
One of these suggestions might be right for you, or you might want to think of your own idea. What’s important is that you do something, especially if you’re dealing with lingering grief after missing out on a full funeral for someone you loved. It’s not too late to honor and celebrate their life.