Published on May 19, 2020

sad woman head in hands

When a Funeral is Delayed, How Do I say Goodbye?

At the end of life, we honor those we love by saying our goodbyes. When we cannot be there in person to say those farewells, it can hurt even more – adding shame to our sorrow.

Usually we can join with our friends and family as we mourn, to share memories and comfort one another under the burden of loss.

During this pandemic and its restrictions, more and more people have had to halt those traditions. We cannot gather together in person to grieve. Funerals are often postponed. And while the love we feel for those who have died hasn’t changed – it feels like so many other things have.

“Although a funeral can be delayed, our grief is not something we can delay,” said Rev. Laurel Buwalda, chaplain at Avera Cancer Institute. “The loss of a loved one is very real, and most people are comforted more than anything else by the presence of their family, friends and faith community. I believe that delaying a funeral for too long runs the risk of our grief becoming complicated.”

Decluttering Our Sorrow

Complicated grief can come from many sources, not just the coronavirus at the root of the current pandemic.

“There are several risk factors that can lead to a lingering time of mourning,” Buwalda said. “Experiences like an unexpected death, a death of a child, or a violent death can complicate our grief, as well as factors like PTSD, mental illness or even social isolation. Although we can’t control or prevent these experiences, there are some ways to help us grieve well.”

So whether our loss is related to COVID or something else, it’s always a good idea seek help early on. Talk to your pastor and to a counselor about your feelings and about your struggle to know what to do. Learn what options are available for funeral or graveside gatherings.

Alternative Gathering Spaces

Virtual gatherings are another approach that can help families say goodbye and remember.

“The nature of the current virus is scary and many people are fearful, so it heightens the anxiety they already feel,” said Kari Horvath, LSW, a behavioral health social worker with Avera Medical Group Marshall. “Group Zoom or FaceTime sessions can help, but they are not the same. I would encourage people to acknowledge that reality – it is hard. But families can turn to one another to help realize the loss and find approaches that can help them cope.”

Funerals – in virtual form – are an option. You can work with funeral directors to discover ways to use tech to stay in touch. “Although these times require us to maintain physical distance, we don’t have to maintain emotional or spiritual distance,” Buwalda said. “Reaching out is more vital than ever to maintaining our emotional and spiritual health.”

Comfort in Community

In some cases, a smaller group may be for the better.

“Family services often are more intimate as opposed to those open to the community, and in some cases, the family is perhaps able to be more real with one another,” said Rev. Jerry Vander Lee, Chaplaincy Manager at Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center. “A family ritual can offer a depth of honesty and transparency that may not be present when there is a community present. It’s important for people to have opportunity to say what needs to be said, and this may more likely happen in a more intimate setting.”

But those who pass away were important to many people beyond the family – that’s why finding balance and acknowledging the difficulty of doing so is important.

“We make sense of things by telling stories, and this may be one of the most difficult aspects of funeral rituals in the time of COVID,” said Vander Lee. “Many people are planning to hold community services when things subside. My hope is we all will be more contemplative and kind. People find peace when they reconcile the way things are with the way they wish they were.”

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