A dying man is surrounded by family members as he takes his last breath. Those family members soon gather again to make funeral arrangements. Later they join others at the funeral home, church and cemetery to celebrate the man’s life and say 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.
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, 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 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.
Everyone grieves differently and there is no set time line for mourning, but individuals might want to seek help if they experience deep feelings of loneliness or depression, overuse substances or are stuck in one of the early stages of grief, Deacon Donahue said. Looking through photos and even writing letters to the deceased might be helpful, Deacon Donahue said.
It’s important to acknowledge the heartbreaking situations many people are experiencing, 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 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 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.