St. John the Evangelist Church in Lower Sackville. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont.
St. John the Evangelist Church in Lower Sackville. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont.

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There are very few aspects of our lives currently unaffected by COVID-19. That includes the way we mourn and grieve those who die during this time.

In recent weeks, obituaries typically end with “there will be no services held at this time due to COVID-19,” or “due to COVID-19, a service will be held at a later date.”

The inability to observe normal grieving rituals due to social distancing requirements has been brought into sharp focus following the horrific events of this past weekend that left at least 19 people dead.

“This unprecedented situation we face with the COVID-19 virus makes this unspeakable tragedy and how we deal with it that much more difficult,” Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang said during Monday’s media briefing.

“I know what I’m about to say is going to be hard for people to hear, especially when we‘re going through so much pain at this time. And while we want to mourn victims and come together as communities, we need to do that in a way that does not create an environment for COVID-19 to further spread.”

Strang reminded Nova Scotians that the Health Protection Act Order and Emergency Management Act stipulates all gatherings must be of five people or fewer, and even then people must maintain social distance.

He also urged those wanting to honour the RCMP to stay off the streets, adding that “we don’t need and can’t have that.”

A tweet on the Nova Scotia RCMP account also reminded people to continue to abide by public health orders “while honouring the members.”

Strang said while the province asks for and welcomes tributes honouring victims and those impacted by this weekend’s mass killings, those tributes must for now remain virtual.

“COVID-19 is not going to pause because of our pain. We cannot let our guard down and create even more challenges by having C19 spread further,” he said.

“Again, I’m sorry I have to say this. I know it’s difficult. But we need to continue to stay strong and deal with both of these difficult circumstances in a way that sees no one else get hurt, sick, or die.”

Strang further noted that although today we need to focus on mourning safely, we’ll remember the victims of Sunday’s tragedy as a province “in ways that we’re more accustomed to” when the threat of COVID-19 has passed.

Photo: @TammyJfrCowBay

For now, people are being encouraged to tie a Nova Scotia tartan or blue ribbon to a tree outside their home or affixed to a window in a show of solidarity.

How difficult is it to cope with grief when you can’t follow typical rituals and are then additionally confronted with a traumatic and horrific event like this weekend’s shooting rampage?

Andrea Cook is a registered psychologist who recently moved from Halifax to St. John’s, Newfoundland. She said the grieving process is multifaceted and includes wavering between acceptance, denial, depression, bargaining, and anger. A traumatic mass killing like this makes it all the more challenging.

“People are going to have a hard time just even wrapping their heads around the acceptance of what has happened. How you can even get to that stage of acceptance let alone getting to a place of closure,” she said in an interview on Monday.

“It’s really difficult to do in the best of times when you’re dealing with regular death. When you’re dealing with traumatic death in this way, it’s so much harder to get to a place of making sense of this.”

Cook said with the perpetrator dead, getting answers will take much longer and no one is left to be held “accountable,” adding further stress to families already trying to process the inconceivable.

“That in itself is hard, but then when you can’t go through those regular rituals that people need to find closure and to find comfort and to make sense of it, it’s very difficult,” she said.

Over the past two days, she has reached out to many of her clients, including RCMP members. She said everyone is in a complete state of shock.

“I don’t think anyone can process it right now. It’s one thing when you’re dealing with someone who has been ill and you can kind of take your time to wrap your head around it, even if they are going into the hospital and they don’t come out, at least you’ve had more time to at least know where it’s going to go,” Cook said.

“These people and families have been completely blindsided when they’re already in a state of fight or flight anyway because of COVID.”

The “shocked place”

Cook calls our current COVID-19 experience a global trauma. She explained that most of us are already in a fight-or-flight position and fearful for our own safety due to the insecurities this virus and accompanying protocols have created.

“Then you get blindsided by something that’s completely beyond anything you can wrap your head around. It’s a whole other level now,” she said.

Cook said as we enter our sixth week of isolation and social distancing, we are all on guard, our emotional resources are getting depleted, and we’re exhausted. We’re hesitant about making eye contact or saying hello to each other in the grocery store or on neighbourhood walks. Everyone is concerned about their own personal security, worried about whether other people will approach them, worried whether they’re at a safe enough distance.

“Everybody’s activation levels are already up in that fight or flight response,” she said.

“That’s kind of what we see in trauma as far as when someone’s been in a traumatic situation, your body gets under this physiological fight or flight readiness and we can only keep that going for so long and then people just start to get burnt out and sad and depressed and exhausted.”

Cook said the first six weeks of any kind of incident is considered an acute trauma, and she thinks we’re hitting that “shocked place” where we are now getting into what she calls a post traumatic stress response that takes longer to bounce back from.

The addition of this sudden, horrific mass killing further compounds our collective grief.

“Psychiatric assessment units are maxed out already,” she said. “People were already stressed before, and then you add COVID and then you add the biggest mass disaster in Canadian history on top of that.”

She encourages people to reach out and help those impacted by grief in any way they can, but cautions they also recognize their own limitations.

“Everybody is in a state of stress and you can be traumatized by other people’s stories. Just check in with yourself too as far as self care,” she said.

That self care includes establishing a sense of routine whenever possible. Exercising, eating well, doing what you can to maintain a semblance of normalcy.

“We need to create safety in our worlds in order to feel you can kind of thrive a little bit and right now there’s no safety, so eating well, grounding in our sensory experiences as far as what am I smelling, what am I touching, what am I tasting,” she said.

“Pets are getting a lot of love right now. Fuzzy furry creatures are very good for our welfare, especially for those who live alone. My clients who have animals are doing a lot better than those who don’t.”

She also reminded parents to be mindful of keeping disturbing news away from their children as much as possible, and to remember that sometimes when children lash out the cause can be anxiety.

Cook additionally encourages Nova Scotians to reach out in whatever ways they can virtually to offer support to those in mourning during a time where we can’t observe normal rituals.

“I think the world is figuring out different ways to do it in terms of broadcasting things and connecting with people on social media,” she said.

“I can’t imagine being these families right now and still not being able to have physical contact. It’s going to be a very, very long and tricky road for them and for Nova Scotia in general.”

Funerals during the pandemic

Photo by Mayron Oliveira on Unsplash

Before the tragic events of this weekend, the Halifax Examiner spoke with a number of people about the challenges of coping with the deaths of loved ones during COVID-19. Their comments are therefore not reflective of the experiences of people impacted by the mass shooting.

COVID-19 hasn’t stopped people from dying of cancer or from strokes, heart attacks or any other illness or disease.

Mark Hooftman is general manager of Atlantic Funeral Homes in Lower Sackville and has been a licensed funeral director since 1993. He said this virus has presented numerous challenges for the industry, but it has adapted as best they can with virtual meetings, providing personal protective equipment, and using live streaming.

“Grieving families aren’t having that ability to outwardly mourn with their community, something that we’ve been doing since the beginning of time,” he said.

“There’s a famous saying that when words are inadequate, we have ceremony. And we have ceremonies for births, graduations, weddings, and for deaths. We find it challenging to have some meaningful and appropriate ceremony for those that need it the most…It’s been very, very different.”

While funeral homes are still having gatherings, they must adhere to the social distancing requirements and restrictions by hosting private visitations of no more than five people. He said that still allows nearby family members the opportunity to see their loved one.

“Often we know that that loved one was isolated and due to social distancing they might not have had the opportunity to spend time with them,” he said. “So now more than ever it’s important to spend time and have the opportunity to say goodbye.”

Arrangement conferences are now limited to two people in person, and only if those people haven’t been out of the province in the last 14 days. Atlantic Funeral Homes also offers consultations via telephone or online. Hooftman said the funeral home also tries to offer “some sort of closure” by having a service that can be livestreamed so even families at a distance can feel close.

He said he’s actively encouraging people to plan a memorial, gathering, or time to remember in the future when the pandemic is behind us.

“We know there’s a need to gather as a community, to get those hugs and the stories and the sharing of memories as a group and outwardly mourn. That’s really hard to do right now,” he said.

“Grief is not going to wait for us, so we want to make sure we meet their immediate needs as well as their future needs with the community. Every life is unique and deserves to be remembered and memorialized and we want to make sure that everyone gets that. Grief is challenging at the best of times, and it’s even more challenging in a pandemic.”

Despite the challenges, Hooftman said things will return to normal, and creative stop gap measures like social media hugs and handwritten letters will give way to real touch and contact.

“Eventually we’ll be able to do what we’re known to do as social creatures and gather when a death has occurred, mourn as a community and share memories and hugs and all those things,” he said.

Saying good-bye

Gwynedd Pickett’s father Hubert Morgan, 79, died in hospital on April 8 following a stroke. The retired Dalhousie University English professor’s obituary shares highlights of a life well lived.

Hubert Morgan

Pickett wrote her father’s obituary, which contains delightful tidbits like “Hubert was a wonderfully kind and gentle man. Cats, in particular, would always gravitate to him. Nuns sat next to him on trains.”

“He had these hidden depths that people would meet him and assume that this relatively slight man in a tweed jacket who was an English professor would be useless at practical things, and that was absolutely not the case,” Pickett chuckled during an interview.

“He built bookshelves and did his roofing and taught me and my sister, and in recent years was teaching his grandsons a lot of this. There were a lot of people that knew him in different facets of his life. Especially in recent days with his illness or as people heard the news, former students or people have written to say memories of him and how he affected their lives.”

Like so many obituaries published in recent weeks, Morgan’s includes the line “Sadly, due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, no public funeral or reception will be held.”

Pickett, a neurosurgeon and Dalhousie University professor, said since her father’s death she’s been reflecting on how we observe funerary rituals.

“These are for the living and they provide this opportunity for communal grief and really for those diverse groups to get together, and there are perspectives to hear about his life reflected through other people’s lives that I will not hear,” she said.

“If you come together and you do it all at once there’s this catharsis. Not that it’s going to be over and you get on with things, just that there’s been that event, that moment you can look at.”

Pickett said because they knew her father was dying, they were permitted to have one family member with him in hospital at all times. She recalls one moment when the reality of COVID-19 and its impact on her father’s impending death hit her particularly hard.

“I texted a friend to say ‘I’m standing here crying because I just realized that with my church choir we probably would have had a ceremony,’ and one of the things we usually sing is the Russian Kontakion for the Departed,” she said.

“Dad would’ve loved that, and I texted her and said that is the little detail right now that is making the tears come to my eyes. I just realized we can’t all get together and sing this piece.”

Pickett said they were grateful exceptions to the no-visitor policy are currently made for patients who are dying. But those restrictions pose other challenges. Grandchildren can’t gather around the bed to say their final goodbyes, and many moments meant to be intimate and one-on-one are now shared.

One of her nephews is in the navy and quarantined for 14 days before going aboard his ship. On a day Pickett was the designated visitor, her sister reached out to ask if her son could Facetime to say goodbye.

“I said oh sure of course I will. I don’t think she realized by asking and I didn’t realize by accepting that I was there, that somebody has to hold the tablet. My dad was basically asleep but I can’t just leave the room so I am there at this very intimate moment,” she said.

“I was so grateful that we had this possibility for virtual connection, but it was also just really difficult because I couldn’t say, ‘Oh do you want a private moment with your grandfather?’ I think about the nurses who have been doing this for other patients, particularly those who are dying of COVID so visitation is even more restricted.”

Thinking about death

Pickett said she’s hopeful that when COVID-19 has left our shores, it will leave us with a deeper sense about what’s important and inform the way we look at the world and the way we rebuild it.

“Do we want to go back to normal, the semblance of normal, looking at it through this lens? Maybe we want to reconsider how we do it,” Pickett said.

“We have more time for the slower pace of connection and writing little cards and making people cookies. I’m sure my friends would have done these supportive things anyway, but it’s really been lovely at this time.”

Asked if her family is hurting because they can’t grieve in the typical way, Pickett paused. She then said although they didn’t have it all planned out, you do have an idea about how these things will unfold and it definitely didn’t happen as expected.

Although her family felt like they were forging a different path, they also weren’t worried about not doing what was expected because there are no expectations during this unprecedented time.

“There are ways in which we’re all kind of fumbling through. I don’t know that I will feel that this was a better or a worse way. This is how it is unfolding and I think we are all coping as best we can,” she said.

“And I think in the end I hope that we will all feel that we honoured him and grieved him and came to terms with his death in ways that we can go forward and I think we will…I don’t imagine any death or any funeral feels normal to the people living through it. I think at the end, I won’t know what it would have been to do it differently.”

Herbert Northcott teaches at the University of Alberta. His research includes a focus on the sociology of dying, death and bereavement in addition to co-authoring Dying and Death in Canada and a textbook on aging and society in Canada.

He believes that COVID-19 may be pushing us into a future we were already catapulting towards. He points to the fact that in recent years we’ve been moving towards a far more secular, less collective, and more individualized kind of service when people die. As an example, he uses the relatively recent phenomenon of a celebration of life.

“It is already a practice which is becoming normalized and institutionalized. We have these at some time distant from the actual death, a celebration to which the dead person is not invited and is not present,” he said.

“We’ve already been moving in that direction, so COVID is simply pushing us further along that track. Funerary rituals, death, dying, and our response to same has been evolving, changing, for some time.”

Bertha Brannen

Grief specialist Bertha Brannen has volunteered her time hosting community support groups in the Yarmouth area for about 20 years. She likens our slower COVID-19 impacted lives to a positive pause, or a reset.

“With this pause, maybe we will stop and think more about death, more about loss. We don’t want COVID-19 because somebody we love may die or we may die, so we’re a little bit more aware of death and those losses,” Brannen said.

“The materialistic things aren’t so important right now as much as the people that we love. To me that’s the hidden lining.”

She believes COVID-19 has not only forced us as a death-averse society to think about our mortality. She said it is allowing us to show more compassion to those who are grieving now that we have more time for deeper reflection about what matters.

“It makes us appreciate our mortality more. I think it was high time. We are a death-denying society, and COVID-19 makes us aware that death is a part of life,” Brannen said.

“We need to acknowledge that it’s a transition and it’s a painful thing, and what gets us through it is the support of others who don’t judge it, who accept that it’s a process. In the end, death and loss affects us all.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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