Saying Farewell: how covid-19 is changing the conversation around grief
by Melanie Wong
It is August 13 and in Sydney the sky is clear. A Chinese-Australian family of five stands in a backyard garden in varying states of dark clothing. There is a phone on a tripod from which two elderly people peer – their faces too close to the camera.
Where the grass meets the concrete pavement, there is a little shrine with candles, incense sticks, and a table laden with cakes and fruit – before a photograph of an old woman. The family bows once, twice, three times, and burns a paper bag full of joss paper. The smoke rises high. In the background, the sound of Buddhist chanting drones on, as it will every seventh day for seven weeks. This is a funeral without a body, 7000 kilometres away from where this sister, mother and grandmother died.
Mourning a loved one is never an easy task, regardless of the culture, religion or country. However, COVID-19 has added an extra layer of difficulty to an already painful time in the lives of those left behind.
Li Fun’s funeral. (Video: Melanie Wong)
My grandmother’s name was Li Fun. She was born in Vietnam to a Chinese family in 1933, in a time when Vietnam was still under French colonial rule. She married and escaped to Hong Kong as a refugee before giving birth to four girls, cousins to her brother’s eleven sons. Two of those daughters would remain in Hong Kong with her while two would immigrate to Australia. Of the two who left, my mother was one.
Whether it be aged care restrictions, funeral restrictions or border restrictions, bereavement has never looked so different. At the time of writing, the funeral restrictions in NSW were capped at a maximum 100 attendees. However, only ten individuals were allowed to attend a funeral in NSW at the height of the pandemic in March, before restrictions eased to 50 attendees in June.
Li Fun and her husband. (Photo: Supplied, Linda Wong)
Li Fun and her husband. (Photo: Supplied, Linda Wong)
Grieving families have been struggling to physically attend a loved one’s funeral. The process of applying for travel exemptions is stressful enough, without taking into account the recent state and national border closures and the need for 14-day quarantine upon arrival and, where possible, return.
The day of my grandmother’s death, my mother had applied for a travel exemption to Hong Kong, which was approved within the hour. By the time a decision to remain in Sydney had been made because of her deteriorating condition, my grandmother had already passed away in United Christian Hospital, Kwun Tong, at 4:01pm HKT.
Li Fun in Vietnam. (Photo: Supplied, Linda Wong)
Li Fun playing mahjong. (Photo: Supplied, Linda Wong)
It is difficult to say what would have happened if COVID-19 had not existed at all. Perhaps my entire family would have gone to Hong Kong. We would have attended the viewing and the funeral physically, not just through YouTube livestreams and FaceTime and Zoom. We would have been with my whole extended family, rather than just my parents and sisters, dressed in black in our living room.
My family’s grief is not the only example of how bereavement was affected in 2020. Jacinta Gale from Invocare, the company behind White Lady Funerals, says that funeral directors implemented new measures to ensure that funerals were still personal and meaningful, despite funeral restrictions limiting as little as ten individuals attending.
“Among the most popular for families was live-streaming of funeral services, which enabled relatives and friends to watch a funeral in real time,” Ms Gale said. “From a grief perspective, watching a livestream won’t replace being there, but it certainly allows them to be there in real time.
“The most difficult issue we’ve encountered this year is definitely the restrictions on the number of mourners and also the added measures needed for viewings with loved ones who passed away due to COVID-19.”
The logistics of funerals and viewings are not the only things that have changed. Grief itself is different now, according to the counselling team at the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement (ACGB).
“The way people are grieving during COVID-19 is similar to anticipatory grief, loss in three different time frames,” a spokeswoman said.
“There’s a shortage of immediate support available for those who are grieving and an inability to reach out to others because they feel their friends and families are trying to manage with their own concerns, such as a job loss.”
While online funerals replaced traditional ways of mourning, the ACGB didn’t consider this to be enough, as mourners were unable to collect ashes or experience bereavement with family and friends.
“It is distressing for people alone when the blank screen is shown at the end of the service and there is no one present to talk with or debrief with over a cup of tea… there’s a hesitation to use Telehealth, because they believe it’s not the same as face to face counselling.”
Pat and George Cole, 1958. (Photo: Supplied, Bronte Gossling)
F uneral homes and grief organisations have noted that some families have opted to hold memorial services later, when restrictions have been lifted, in order to respect last wishes or avoid electing who can attend the funeral. Such was the case with Bronte Gossling’s family.
Bronte’s grandmother, Patricia Cole, died on Tuesday 17 March after a decade-long battle with Alzheimers. It was just as Australia was going into lockdown. At the time, not much was certain about nursing home visitation policies and restrictions.
A week before Patricia died, her family received a call from the nursing home. “They said, if you want to see her, be prepared that this might be the time to say goodbye,” Bronte says. “We went every day that week and at that stage, the nursing home was implementing hand sanitising stations at the entrance of the main home and then at the entrance of each ward.
“On the Monday, I’m pretty sure they said no visitors anymore due to coronavirus, but the staff knew that our grandmother was dying. So we got to bring all our family in. On the Tuesday night, she passed away – and Mum and I were with her.”
For Bronte and her whole extended family, the uncertainty was the most terrifying part, both before her grandmother’s death and in the aftermath.
“It was just the not knowing,” Bronte said. “When she actually passed away, we got to be with her. But when we got that phone call a few days previous, we didn’t know if we were going to be allowed to… so that was the scariest bit for us.”
Pat Cole’s wedding. (Photo: Supplied, Bronte Gossling)
Pat Cole at Lisa Gossling’s wedding. (Photo: Supplied, Bronte Gossling)
Due to Patricia’s unpredictable health, Bronte’s family had advanced care directives in place for many years. But the pandemic threw a wrench in these plans. Despite the funeral home’s transparent communication, there was increasing talk of government-mandated funeral restrictions.
“It was really stressful when we were at the White Lady planning services, because we didn’t know if she could have a funeral or not,” Bronte explains. “My mum’s side of the family is quite big. Three of my grandmother’s four children have children, who then have children or partners. There was no way this funeral would go ahead with restrictions without seriously upsetting someone because we knew that people would have to be cut from the guest list. But how do you make that choice? Who is more important?”
In addition to the stress of restricted attendees, Patricia had specific wishes for her funeral. As a devout Catholic her whole life, there were plans for hymns, psalms and readings during her wake, all at the local RSL that Patricia had frequented in life. With restrictions, a wake was no longer possible.
“The week that the funeral was going to go ahead was when restrictions were announced that only ten people could be at the funeral service… so we made the decision not to hold a funeral,” Bronte says. “There was a lot of guilt felt by the whole family.”
Although they will be having a celebration of life in 2021, pandemic-permitting – exactly a year after her death – this decision didn’t make the grieving process any easier for Bronte. But she’s hoping that next year, the family will be able to celebrate Patricia the way that she deserves.
“She died on St Patrick’s Day. And she was Irish. And her name was Patricia. We always joked that St Patrick’s Day was her feast day because she just loved it,” Bronte laughs. “So we’re going to have a celebration, probably at the RSL, on St Patrick’s Day next year.”
The process of bereavement may be slow and made more difficult this year, but Bronte’s family have still found a way to mourn and celebrate Patricia’s life in a way that she would have loved.
Pat Cole’s White Lady Funeral. (Photo: Supplied, Bronte Gossling)
Adam Jacoby’s oma was 103, a Holocaust survivor and a great walker. Fredrika Matzner was born in Czechoslovakia and lived through the concentration camps of World War II before moving to Australia with her husband. As the matriarch of her family, she was respected, loved and admired by the generations after her. This is what made it so hard for them to be separated from her in her final months.
“She was 103, so it was not entirely unexpected,” Adam says. “It was made more difficult by the fact that most of the time we couldn’t be there in the last few months. Nobody could go and visit her. So I think that’s what made it worse.”
Based in Melbourne, Fredrika moved into an aged care facility a few years ago. Luckily, the home experienced no cases of COVID-19 due to proactive measures against spreading the virus, but this meant that visitation was limited for the family.
“When she started to deteriorate, they let my mother know,” Adam said. “And the point at which my mom decided that it was probably looking like this was the end, she spoke to the facility, and all of us were able to come and visit.”
It is never easy saying goodbye to someone you love, let alone the matriarch of the family. But it was made worse by the time between visits during which Fredrika had deteriorated, unseen by her family members.
“Those few months of the deterioration [when] we didn’t get to see [her], makes where she was, and where she ended up in a short period of time, a bit incongruent.”
Fredrika Matzner’s wedding. (Photo: Supplied, Adam Jacoby)
Fredrika Matzner and Adam Jacoby. (Photo: Supplied, Adam Jacoby)
Fredrika passed away on a Saturday afternoon, half a day after her family had said their last goodbyes to her. As she was Jewish, the Jewish burial group chevra kadisha collected her body from the aged care centre in preparation for the burial the next day.
“What then happens is somebody has to sit with the body, the whole night as it’s getting ready for the funeral the next day,” Adam explains. “It’s part of the ritual. It’s meant to be one of the most blessed things that you can do.”
The next morning, at 9:30am, the rabbi spoke to the 10 family members in attendance, before Adam’s grandmother was buried. The small funeral was not what Adam’s family would have expected before the pandemic.
“Instead of 10 people there, there probably would have been 300 people there. And the sermon probably would have been different, and the nature of the way that you could grieve would be different because we weren’t really allowed to hug each other,” Adam recalled. “The nature of the grieving and the funeral and the whole process because of COVID-19, was obviously fairly significantly affected.
“But I think also oma would have said, ‘but that’s okay’. Because it’s actually more important that the community is kept safe. Yes, you need an opportunity to say goodbye. But for the people who were closest to her, we did have an opportunity to say goodbye. And it’s the memories that matter. And so if there’s an inconvenience for the greater good, she probably would have said, ‘well, it’s worth the inconvenience’.”