'I have not even begun to grieve.' Coronavirus response takes a toll on mourning families
Joe Buchanan died two weeks ago, after months of routine dialysis treatments. His wife of 34 years, Kimra, and their son, Justin, braced for this day they knew would eventually come.
But they weren’t prepared for what came after.
“The time when we should be mourning and going through old photos and hugging this out, we can’t,” Justin Buchanan said during a video interview last week.
The interview he did with KNKX Public Radio, alongside his mom, was the closest he had sat to her since his father died.
That’s because Kimra Buchanan started showing flu-like symptoms around the time of her husband’s death. She’s been practicing strict social distancing, in case those symptoms are a result of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
But keeping her distance means she hasn’t been able to physically console her children, or see her in-laws, to mourn the death of her “old school, salt-of-the-earth” husband, as she describes him.
“I have not even begun to grieve,” she said. “I almost feel like I’m stuck.”
Kimra recalled the process that followed her mother’s death four years ago: visiting the funeral home, choosing an urn, arranging details for a service, gathering with family for mutual support.
“We can’t do any of that right now,” she said. “We still haven’t picked out an urn. We haven’t made those arrangements. I haven’t even been able to see his mom and dad. It’s just been strange.”
The coronavirus outbreak has touched virtually every part of our lives. And now it’s affecting the way people grieve.
Funeral homes in Washington state are adapting their services to meet public health requirements and limit the spread of COVID-19.
Gov. Jay Inslee included funerals in his sweeping ban on public gatherings. In a statement released Saturday, Inslee clarified that services may continue with immediate family members only, so long as attendees practice social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And some funeral homes are offering livestreamed memorial services.
Still, many families across the state — including the Buchanans — are postponing instead. David Lukov, who presides over services at Kern Funeral Home in Mount Vernon, said he’s already postponed a handful and expected more to follow.
“Every day we’re scurrying to figure out what we can do to serve our families,” Lukov said.
But there’s little he and others in his position can do beyond wait, for those who want to console in community.
“Funerals, most people have been to them,” said Rob Goff, executive director of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association. “There’s a lot of hugging and holding each other and sharing these moments of grief with each other, and you can’t do that by way of a livestream.”
So, the biggest change to funeral directors’ jobs is how they’re interacting with families.
“Most funeral homes have basically locked their doors,” Goff said. “It’s appointment only. But most of those appointments are being held now by way of telephone conference, video conference.”
There isn’t a ban on disposition of remains, meaning cremation and burial can continue, as well as cultural ceremonies such as washing or shrouding. The Buchanans said dealing with the funeral home was the only normal part of the past couple weeks.
But a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment is posing a challenge for funeral homes looking to maintain safe working conditions.
The state’s emergency operations center uses a tiered system to identify who will receive supplies that are increasingly limited. That includes surgical masks that mortuary workers must use when handling remains. Goff says funeral homes are a step below health care workers and first responders, and he’s hoping the state will bump them up a level to maintain safe working conditions.
“That will open the door for us to have access to personal protective equipment much greater than we have currently,” he said.
Goff’s organization is petitioning the governor and state Sen. Mike Padden, a Republican who represents the Spokane Valley area. He says it’s possible to contract COVID-19 from decedents, because the virus spreads through respiratory droplets that can be exhaled from a deceased person’s lungs.
Goff said viewings also are allowed in small groups, though he says they aren’t common these days. Roughly 80 percent of people statewide choose to be cremated after they die.
But as strict social distancing continues, and some people are forced to die alone in quarantine, Goff says he expects behavior to shift.
Without having a funeral, I think we're seeing a lot more requests for viewing, because we haven't been able to see our loved ones. The further away from the death you are, the harder it hits you at home.
“Without having a funeral, I think we’re seeing a lot more requests for viewing, because we haven’t been able to see our loved ones,” Goff said. “The further away from the death you are, the harder it hits you at home.”
He says postponing funerals until more people can gather extends the mourning process, compounding the grief.
“People who experience that experience it much longer than people who have the opportunity to view and have the opportunity to say goodbye,” he said. “They live with that for the rest of their lives. That’s going to affect them forever.”
For Kimra and Justin Buchanan, they want that closeness — something they say a livestream can’t replace.
“There’s no one there to hold your hand, no one there to hand you Kleenex, no one to laugh with when someone tells a funny story,” Kimra said. “I can’t even imagine not having that human contact.”