“When words are inadequate, have a ritual.” – Author Unknown

Resurgence and Reawakening of Mourning Rituals

During this wretched Covid-19 pandemic, I have observed a fascinating resurgence and renewal of mourning rituals in North America.  Specifically, our mourning-avoiding culture had previously forgotten some of the essential purposes of funerals/celebrations of life.  Prior to our Covid-19 world, there was a steady decline in traditional funerals and celebrations of life.  We had been losing the benefits due to this de-ritualization trend. Even time-honored obituaries were becoming less common.  Now, sadly, pages and pages of obituaries on a single day are printed in the newspapers in New York City.

The outlawing of mourning rituals were increasing as more and more requests were being made by living persons to not hold a funeral, celebration of life, or any type of mourning ritual after their death and some even requesting no obituary.  Persons who stated their post-death wishes of no rituals may not have fully appreciated that restricting grieving rituals can often interfere with family members need and/or ability to receive the support of others that can be obtained through meaningful rituals. This is now being more valued during this Covid-19 world.

Grieving rituals serve an important function of coming together to honor and respect the deceased loved one; share meaningful memories; and be a witness to the reality of that loss. I have always been grateful to my Father who when I asked what his wishes might be for his funeral stated: “I will be gone, this is for you, so do whatever you need or want to”.   We were able to honor some of his wishes five years ago upon his death but he gave us the freedom to also do what we needed.  There is now an increased recognition that funerals serve as the central gathering place for mourners.

It is a strong desire or perhaps even in our DNA that, if at all possible, we want to attend the funeral of friends or family members.  Our physical presence is our most important show of support for the living.  Mourning rituals are one of the rare times which we as a society condone outward expression of our sadness.  Funerals give the message “Come support me and share my grief”.  This physical show of support is the most important healing aspect of meaningful funeral or celebration of life ceremonies, if done well.

Before Covid-19, many funerals were being abandoned in favor of preferring to call them celebrations of life.  In our grief avoidance culture, this was a way of not acknowledging that “mourning and celebrating life” are both parts of the same grieving process, it is not either/or.

Perhaps it was also a backlash to some funeral services restricting even the mention of the deceased person’s name. This unfortunate experience happened at the funeral of my maternal grandmother who had lived with us in our three generational family throughout my childhood.  This was my first major and very painful loss as a young 25 year old.  When I asked the priest if I could say a few words about my Grandmother, he denied my request.  We attended the funeral Mass on behalf of my Grandmother although her name was never mentioned.  Fortunately, there are very few instances in religious funeral services now where the loved one’s name cannot be spoken.

Perhaps another reason for the decreasing number of funerals and/or memorials was due to a movement away from religious mourning rituals. But even secular celebrations of life were decreasing.  However, our Covid-19 world has now seen a resurgence of both secular and religious services and memorials.  Funeral celebrants are becoming as common as ministers. Recently, I had my first experience of being invited to be the celebrant at a secular funeral and found it as meaningful as a religious service.  Although I missed singing and listening to traditional religious hymns, my friend’s sons chose “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as the prelude to the funeral and it was a perfect choice for how my friend lived her life.

Covid-19 is reviving the healing potential of mourning rituals.  Health care professionals can capitalize on this reawakening by encouraging the planning and implementing of traditional and non-traditional rituals for healing following the death of a loved one.

The Emergence of Virtual Funerals

Over this past month, I have “attended” the virtual funerals of two elderly friends through the technology of Zoom. Attendees to these virtual funerals were mostly located in North American but also some from abroad.  However, participating in a funeral through a computer screen was quite surreal as a new form of “mourning with those that mourn”.  I confess for me it was not fulfilling.  I believe that collective grieving and providing comfort should be tactile events that involve many people coming together.  But virtual funerals or celebrations of life have become a communal event on Zoom or Skype that can be shared not just to those in our immediate family, but to family members and friends across the globe, for the central and perpetual reason that grief shared often becomes more bearable.  Virtual funerals and celebrations of life are one way that families can proceed to honor their family member and have the healing support of family and friends, even at a distance.

Now or Later for Mourning Rituals during Covid-19 World?

Understandably, both of the family funerals that I attended on Zoom preferred to have the funeral as soon as possible after the deaths of their loved ones. One of these funerals took place in a funeral home, the other in a private home with the deceased family member’s casket also present.

Neither of these deaths were due to Covid-19 but the coronavirus was dictating how funerals could now be conducted, how many could attend, and where they could be held. These families both followed the public health directives in their area of how many could be present at each funeral with the required six feet of social distancing.  All the usual forms of greeting one another with hugs and expressions of sympathy were mostly absent.  Yes, the music and tributes to the deceased family member were heartfelt but I did not feel the usual connection with either of these families and there was a sadness to not physically be with them.

But my sadness was even greater for these two lovely, impressive women who had large families with children and grandchildren because Covid-19 restrictions did allow them to attend in person to honor and celebrate their mother and grandmother.  If asked, I would encourage these two families to have another ritual once coronavirus has been wrestled to the ground.  It could be a post-birthday or Mother’s Day celebration or whatever they choose to call it, so that all family members and friends, who wish, might have the experience of sharing and recalling memories of their loved one and enable their grief to be shared.

Other friends who have had family members die during this Covid-19 dominated world are waiting to have a funeral and/or celebration of life when the current restrictions will be lifted.  They do not want to be limited by how many family members and friends can attend nor where they choose to hold their mourning ritual.  However, waiting to openly grieve with others can in some instances cause more suffering.  They also want to experience the physical as well as emotional support of other friends and family members.

In my clinical work with families, I have been advising families to have mini-mourning rituals if they choose to wait for a larger, collective one. For example, some families are inviting a poem or memory to be shared with family members; lighting a candle each week following the death of their loved one; and/or singing favorite songs or hymns of their deceased loved one together on Zoom.  These are unchartered waters deciding whether to wait to have a larger mourning ritual or to do a semblance of both. What might be best for one family may not be for another.

We are All in this Together

In this time of forced separation, perhaps our renewed desire of “coming together” to support and mourn with family members and friends following the death of a loved one is one positive outcome of this dreadful pandemic.  As much as Covid-19 has caused such suffering, fear, death, and loss, perhaps one of its redeeming features has been to have us renew the significance of mourning rituals.

The now common but meaningful refrain of “we are all in this together may be the ultimate invitation to reclaim mourning rituals.  It is my hope that we who are health professionals will encourage, support and honor those individuals and family members with whatever grieving rituals they hopefully may choose, whether immediate or postponed, large or small, but all so essential for healing in the midst of grief.

Imber-Black, E., Roberts, J. & Whiting, R.A. (Eds). (2003). Rituals in families and family therapy.  W.W. Norton & Co.

Walsh, F. & McGoldrick, M. (2004). (2nd Ed.). Living beyond loss: Death in the family. W.W. Norton & Co.

Wright, L.M. (2015b). Eckhart Tolle’s spiritual words of wisdom: Application to family nursing practice [Guest Editorial]. Journal of Family Nursing, 21(4), 503-507. https://doi.org/10.1177/1074840715606244

Wright, L.M. (2017). Suffering and spirituality: The path to illness healing. 4th Floor Press.

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