• <p>Sister Mary Lou Mitchell shows off lighted memory jars on display in the St. Ann&rsquo;s Community lobby Nov. 7, 2019, during a week of events recognizing grief. (File photo)  </p>

    Sister Mary Lou Mitchell shows off lighted memory jars on display in the St. Ann’s Community lobby Nov. 7, 2019, during a week of events recognizing grief. (File photo)

Coronavirus restrictions on gatherings affect those in mourning

Jennifer Burke/Catholic Courier    |    06.01.2020
Category: Features


A dying man is surrounded by loving family members gathered around his bedside as he takes his last breath. Those family members soon gather again several times over the next few days to make funeral arrangements. They share stories and pore over old photo albums as they choose snapshots to share in displays at calling hours. Later they join others at the funeral home, church and cemetery to celebrate the man’s life and say a final goodbye.

In times of loss many families lean on these rituals, or variations of them. But these familiar traditions have been upended by the current global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus.

In mid-March concerns about spreading the virus prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to issue the New York State on PAUSE executive order banning “non-essential gatherings of individuals of any size for any reason.” Nursing homes and hospitals began prohibiting patients from having visitors, especially if the patients were infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

In the Diocese of Rochester, concerns over the virus prompted Bishop Salvatore R. Matano to suspend the celebration of public Masses, although priests still offered daily Masses without the faithful present, often livestreaming them online.

In their daily Masses, priests should pray for the repose of the souls of the deceased, together with the consolation of their families, Bishop Matano wrote in a March 20 letter to diocesan priests and pastoral administrators.

Gathering families for funeral liturgies, however, will have to wait.

“Due to limitations imposed upon travel and the prohibition of public gatherings, funerals must be coordinated with the funeral home and the cemetery administration for the Rite of Committal to be offered at the graveside, respecting the safety of those in attendance. Memorial Masses are to be scheduled for a future time,” the bishop wrote.

The loss of these rituals may hinder the grieving process for those who’ve grown to expect them, noted Deacon Dennis Donahue, a licensed mental-health counselor and new evangelization coordinator at St. Mary and Sts. Mary and Martha parishes in Auburn.

He suspects those who cannot be with a loved one when he or she passes, or are unable to grieve that loss as they expected, may put their grief on hold.

“They … should not be surprised if they experience a significant upsurge in grief as COVID-19 sheltering restrictions are lifted,” Deacon Donahue remarked.

Typically, a grieving person will pass through six points in the mourning process, he said, noting that clinical psychologist Therese Rando has identified these points at the “Six R’s of Mourning.” These points are:

• recognizing the loss;

• reacting to the separation;

• recollecting and re-experiencing the deceased;

• relinquishing old attachments;

• readjusting to a new world; and

• reinvesting emotional energy.

Rando’s book, How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, may be a helpful read for those who’ve recently lost a loved one, Deacon Donahue said.

Everyone grieves differently and there is no set time line for mourning, but grieving individuals might want to seek help if they experience deep feelings of loneliness or depression, overuse substances to suppress their grief, or are stuck in one of the early stages of grief, Deacon Donahue said. Looking through photos, sharing memories with others and even writing letters to the deceased, expressing things left unsaid, might be helpful to those grieving, Deacon Donahue said.

It’s important to acknowledge the heartbreaking situations many people are experiencing as they are separated from loved ones in hospitals or nursing homes, or unable to memorialize deceased loved ones, added Sister of St. Joseph Mary Louise Mitchell, director of pastoral care for St. Ann’s Community in Rochester.

“This is a moment of suffering,” Sister Mitchell said. “Once you honor it and acknowledge it and offer yourself some kindness and compassion, then I think some healing can happen and you can keep going.”

Many people likely will be experiencing postponed grief in the coming days and weeks, and may find comfort in planning memorial services for loved ones once they’re able to do so, Sister Mitchell said. She is looking into the possibility of offering a virtual bereavement or grief service for St. Ann’s families.

St. Patrick Parish in Victor recently offered one of its livestreamed daily Masses as a funeral Mass for all who had died from complications of COVID-19, said Father Edison Tayag, pastor.

“It was our way of praying for the dead, particularly those without any family around, and of accompanying those who mourn in such a difficult situation,” he said.

Even when other actions are impossible, prayer is always possible, added Sister Mitchell.

“Don’t doubt that the energy of your prayer can be healing,” she said.

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