Grief in the age of COVID-19

ELLSWORTH — When Alice Polley died at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bangor March 30, only one of her three children was able to be with her. In fact, during the 10 days preceding her death, the 88-year-old Machias woman was able to see only that single visitor — her daughter, Sherri Fraser — and only twice.

Now that Polley has died, her family members find themselves in a state of limbo, unable to get closure in a world ruled by restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. (Polley, who suffered from a variety of health issues, did not have COVID-19.)

“We can’t have a funeral. We can’t have any services right now. We can’t even get together and have a meal and mourn,” said Fraser, of Machias. “It’s like she just disappeared.”

Lauri Fernald, owner of Jordan-Fernald Funeral Home in Ellsworth, said Fraser’s experience is not unusual. People who have lost loved ones over the past month are saying they feel unresolved as restrictions on social gatherings affect funeral plans.

“It’s affecting how people are grieving,” Fernald said. “There’s some unsettled feelings.”

Fernald said the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything about the funeral process, starting with the planning.

“We have to limit the number of family members we can meet with,” she said, adding that in the past, entire families have been able to gather to make plans together. Now, many resort to making arrangements online.

“People are not just walking in,” Fernald said. “They’re waiting to see if they’re invited in.”

Fernald said her funeral home recently handled arrangements for an individual who had a family member from out of state. The relative of the deceased could not come to Maine to be with other family members.

Fraser’s family is dealing with the same situation. Her sister, who lives in Portland, Ore., is unable to come home.

“People need people,” said Fraser, who wants other families experiencing loss to know they’re not alone. “It’s very hard for the mourning process.”

Fernald agreed.

“It’s very cathartic to get together and share memories and touch each other and hug each other,” she said.

When a viewing or service is held, the funeral home can allow no more than 10 people in at a time. Others must wait outside in their vehicles. When someone leaves, a funeral home employee will direct the next person to come in.

Mourners are advised to keep at least 6 feet between them. The funeral home also provides hand sanitizer.

“Every time someone comes into the facility, we sanitize, before and after,” Fernald said.

Some families are opting for a burial now but choosing to hold a celebration of life at a later date. This is especially true for families who want the service to take place in church. Area churches remain closed. Uncertainty over how long such gatherings will need to be postponed causes stress, Fernald said.

Another stressor comes from the fact that with courts largely shut down, survivors cannot begin the process of settling an estate.

Not being able to visit with hospitalized loved ones in their final days can be devastating.

“My mother was so depressed she couldn’t have any company,” Fraser said.

She said her mother had been rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night March 19. Fraser was able to visit for a short time that afternoon and again the following Sunday. Then, Monday, March 23, the hospital went on lockdown, allowing no visitors at all.

Hospital staff called Fraser when her mother’s condition worsened a week later.

Fraser said she remembers being told to pack for several days, and to bring her own food because the hospital cafe was closed. She arrived around 7 a.m. and her mother died about six hours later.

“She knew I was there,” said Fraser. “But, by then, there was no quality time together.”

At this time, services are tentatively set for the end of July. In the meantime, family members are struggling.

“It’s horrible,” said Fraser. “There’s no closure.”

Fernald recommends clients make videos of even limited services to share with other family members. Online condolences and social media contact also help with the grieving process, as does collaborating to write an obituary.

“I think it’s really important for [people] to grieve somehow,” Fernald said.

Fraser agreed. She had not posted on social media about her mother’s illness or death. Other family members did, however. As a result, people reached out to share memories and condolences both online and by phone.

“That has been a beautiful experience,” she said. “It’s still not that human experience, but it’s nice to know people are thinking of you.”

Johanna S. Billings

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Johanna S. Billings covers eastern Hancock County and western Washington County. An avid photographer, she lives in Steuben with her husband and several cats. She welcomes tips and story ideas. Email her at [email protected]

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