Last April, Hyla Korn was at her mother’s funeral. She was one of five people who attended in-person, while 100 others watched a live stream.
Korn, an only child, says the service lasted 30 minutes — a completely different experience than the seven-day shiva she had for her dad when he died 10 years ago.
“Nobody would touch me. Nobody would console me,” she says.
“I had friends call me after and basically tell me that it was the worst thing they’ve witnessed. It was absolutely heartbreaking.”
Canadians are experiencing grief differently during the COVID-19 pandemic and funeral homes are trying to find creative ways for people to mourn.
Andrea Warnick, a registered psychotherapist and a member of the Canadian Grief Alliance (CGA), says Canadians are grieving now more than ever and we need a better support system in place.
“Unsupported grief is a real reality during the pandemic … there’s just so many losses right now and people being separated,” she adds.
When you take into account the tens of thousands of people who have died from cancer and heart disease — Canada’s top two leading causes of death according to Statistics Canada — the numbers paint a grim portrayal of Canadians who are trying to cope.
Warnick says funerals look different now because of COVID-19 restrictions, but we still need to find healthy ways to grieve.
“I really encourage people to still have that shiva or memorial or funeral when we can gather in person — but don’t just put it off until then,” she says.
Warnick says she recently worked with a family who hosted a ceremony in their living room for the father who died. They played his favourite music, set up some photos and candles and displayed his hockey jersey.
“Grief is a natural and healthy — albeit very painful and difficult — human experience,” she said.
Funeral Homes offering creative ways to grieve in a pandemic
Many funeral homes have been working hard trying to bridge the gap that restrictions have created for mourners.
James Munroe, the manager of Oshawa Funeral Home in Ontario, says death care professionals have had to come up with creative ways for families to celebrate someone’s life.
Munroe, who has been in the funeral business for more than 20 years, says that more than half of the ceremonies are now live-streamed.
He expects streaming of services will be popular even after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
Prior to Ontario’s stay-at-home order, the funeral home offered “cycling visitations,” where people would register for a 15-minute time slot to pay respects to the deceased.
He says people appreciated that time because they knew another group would soon be arriving and they would dedicate the brief moment to an intimate goodbye.
Every Friday afternoon, Providence Funeral Homes in Penticton, B.C. streams a bagpipe player from the Okanagan Youth Pipe Band for 15 minutes.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the bagpipe player would stand outside the funeral home which is located at a busy intersection.
“We had people come from other communities who weren’t able to have services for their loved ones,” says Nolan Adam, a partner at the funeral home.
“They’d listen to the pipes and have a cry.”
Stephanie Paquette, a funeral director at Tubman Funeral Homes in Ottawa, says about 90 per cent of their services are now live-streamed.
They can also include pre-recorded videos to make the service more personal for the families.
For one service, she says, the sister of the deceased recorded herself singing since she wouldn’t have been able to sing in-person due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Along with pre-recorded eulogies, the family was able to hear stories from other people who were grieving.
Paquette adds that if the weather permits it — the funeral home offers a drive-thru visitation, where people can sit in their vehicles and the service would be broadcast on an FM transmitter.
The funeral home recently bought tents to accommodate outdoor services, but Paquette says the heaters have been on backorder because of restaurant orders.
Additionally, many funeral homes aren’t able to host the traditional luncheon services after the ceremony due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Grief looks different in a pandemic
Tyler Weber, the president of the Alberta Funeral Services Association, says restrictions have been “devastating” for family members who’ve had to pick and choose who can come to the funeral.
“There is no replacement for being (at a funeral) in person,” he said.
“There is no camera lens that’s good enough to capture that — physically being able to look someone in the eye and give them your condolences.”
Warnick adds that grief isn’t a mental health crisis — since it’s a healthy process — but if grief goes unsupported, people can face mental health challenges down the road.
Warnick adds that many Canadians are grieving — and not just about the loss of a loved one.
“People are grieving not being able to be with family members,” she says, adding people are also grieving their jobs, finances or lost dreams.
Enhanced grief literacy would help people understand how people can show up for one another, despite the physical barriers we have right now, she says.