During a time when people are staying distant from their loved ones, it has also forced those who must say goodbye to their loved ones to face a new form of grief. As the world continues the coronavirus-related shutdowns, grieving families are forced to mourn from a distance.
Kelly Kavanaugh, a Colonie resident, lost her father during the pandemic. She is still grappling with the loss of her father and the lack of a proper funeral to honor his life.
“It’s the last thing you can do for them and you can’t do it the right way,” Kavanaugh said. Her father was in a nursing home, so she had not seen him since March. About a month later, he took a turn for the worse.
The nursing home would only allow his wife to see him for an hour on the day of his death. “She was begging them to let her stay,” Kavanaugh said. However, his wife was forced to leave. He died four hours later of complications of Parkinson’s. Kavanaugh said that she still struggles with the fact that he had to be alone at his death.
For Kavanaugh, this was only the beginning of her heartbreak. She could not have a wake or a mass, and the funeral was limited to 10 people. “I never had closure. I never saw him after the nursing home mandate,” she said. Family members who live far away, like Kavanaugh’s brother, could not attend the funeral.
But Kavanaugh said she also lost the ability to reminisce about her father’s life. She spoke about the loss of sharing funny stories and anecdotes about her father with others as a way to find peace. “It was like it didn’t even happen,” she said.
Today, Kavanaugh is still mourning the loss of her father, his solitary death and the lack of a customary funeral. This is a common burden those who lost loved ones during the pandemic are facing.
For religious leaders, it has also been challenging trying to adapt traditions to meet health guidelines. For Rabbi Robert Kasman from Temple Beth El of Troy, Zoom has become a tool in officiating funerals from afar. So far, Kasman has performed three Zoom funerals during the pandemic. However, several other Jewish traditions have been modified.
It is customary for Jews to bury someone as soon as possible after the time of death. However, Kasman spoke of new challenges faced when family passes away in a different state and there is a 14-day quarantine mandate. “If you are a culture that relies on burying as soon as possible, you can understand how strange it is to wait 14 days,” Kasman said.
Kasman also spoke of the difficulties with the reception at some cemeteries inhibiting the ability to properly perform the funeral service. “Everybody is feeling rushed,” he said, saying people are doing what they can to honor their loved ones.
In the Catholic sect, services are also feeling the urgency. Father David Berberian, the priest for St. Thomas the Apostle Church, said obstacles arise when someone needs a holy service, like an anointment, within a day or two and the church is left to organize everything. Typically, services like anointments are reserved about a week in advance.
The constant changes are only exacerbating confusion, with the church only able to accommodate 20 percent of its capacity, or 150 people, at a time. St. Thomas, a congregation with 1,400 regular parishioners, has been forced to scale down its services for the grieving and regular mass.
“Obviously now, there is no holy water and no draping of the cloth over the casket,” Berberian said. “We can have communion but everyone must be masked, social distancing and following certain rules.”
As you enter St. Thomas, you sign a visitor’s form and fill out a questionnaire of potential COVID-19 symptoms. After a squirt of hand sanitizer, you can enter the common areas.
“We’re allowed to have a service here now, as opposed to early in the pandemic when we would be graveside or at the funeral home,” Berberian said. The funeral home arranges for religious instruction at a burial service.
Despite the proverbial roadblocks of the pandemic, clergy and employees are still providing families with the comforts needed post-death. St. Thomas offers a pastoral care team, which provides grieving families with whatever is needed in the following days.
“We really try to keep in touch as people navigate the difficulty of grief,” Berberian concluded. “If you are faced with a situation like this, don’t hesitate to reach out. Don’t go through it alone.”
Although the grass at her father’s grave has not grown in yet, Kavanaugh said that she still needs to move forward for her children. “There’s a loneliness that comes from losing a parent, but I try not to get upset in front of my kids,” she said. “I have to continue to put one foot in front of the other.”
While people like Kavanaugh are forced to process their grief without normal channels, the places that serve the grieving are also affected by the most prolific worldwide health crisis in recent history.
Applebee Funeral Home, a locally-owned institution in Delmar, has been in business since 1904. Today, Jay Rutski and Peter Applebee (the grandson of the business’ namesake) run the successful funeral home with the same attention to detail that there was pre-pandemic. However, the business saw its own changes as Delmar and the state navigated the “new normal.”
“Our business changed dramatically in the days after the pandemic first hit,” Rutski said. “We’ve been on weekly calls with our resources learning about the different restrictions in place and what that means for us.”
The restrictions? Well, while funeral homes were deemed essential businesses, funerals themselves were not. Churches closed down, making it hard to find religious services. Funeral homes were reduced to providing private services, meaning only immediate family could attend. However, no instructions were given as to what constituted “immediate family” — or the number of people that could accommodate. While the funeral home is still offering all of its services and has had no problems with purchasing merchandise needed for it, the circumstances changed. Even cemeteries regulated the amount of people graveside, despite it being outdoors.
Rutski mentioned how the quick shutdown left heads spinning for many families in the weeks after COVID-19 first spiked. Rutski and Applebee were providing services for a burial at Saratoga National Cemetery. That Thursday, everything was already starting to shut down. By the time the service was over, an employee of the cemetery approached Applebee and Rutski and told them they wouldn’t be able to come back for a service scheduled the following Tuesday, as the cemetery was closing that afternoon.
“We need the death certificate and permits to be able to provide the service, and when everything is closed, it becomes difficult,” Applebee said. The state implemented an electronic death certificate database, speeding up the process between the doctors, the courts and the funeral homes immediately after the decedent dies. But, the small decrease in time came at a big price for the families.
“Because we couldn’t have people flying in for the funerals, the process from death to burial has been expedited into about two days,” Rutski said. “Normally, we’d be waiting up to a week sometimes for family.”
The funeral home has also shortened calling hours, Applebee said, resulting in less traffic. What was once a sidewalk full of people along Kenwood Avenue whenever a service took place is now a slow stream, with those who are permitted under state guidelines paying respects and leaving quicker than a traditional wake. Applebee and Rutski also noted those attending services must be masked inside and practice social distancing.
“You can’t advertise the services are happening because it can’t be public,” Rutski said, with Applebee adding many people are looking to the funeral home’s website for information on deaths and services. In almost all obituaries, families mention public memorials will be taking place after the pandemic, a time society still can’t predict, especially with restrictions varying on an almost-daily basis.
“One of the things I see us keeping around after this is tons of hand sanitizer,” Applebee said. “People are going to be so used to cleaning their hands, and will still be on edge, that I intend to keep it around.”
Kavanaugh noted the amended services are understandable but added there are certain things in life you can’t reschedule. “He deserved more than this… he deserved to have people remember the good about him,” Kavanaugh said.
“I know we’re not alone,” she concluded. “There are many people who died during this time who didn’t die of [COVID-19.] It just doesn’t make it any easier.”