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How People Mourn Has Changed in Face of COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo Provided - The late David Clarke and Jennifer Clarke of Wheeling were married 30 years before his death in March 2020. Because of COVID lockdown, the Clarke family was among the first of those locally who were unable to grieve in a public setting.

WHEELING — Early in 2020, when COVID-19 was largely viewed as something happening somewhere else, Jennifer Clarke’s mother-in-law died. When the Wheeling woman’s husband of 30 years fell to pancreatic cancer not long after, the world had changed.

“It was your typical funeral at the church building and then a get together at a local restaurant for food and drinks. That’s what our normal was,” Clarke said of the first death. “It wasn’t possible five weeks later. I never would have dreamed that.”

Her husband, David Clarke, a longtime presence in the region’s automotive sales sector, died on March 12, 2020. This was just as a cascade of state-mandated shutdowns that confined many to their homes were falling into place locally.

“There was no funeral,” Clarke said. “We intended to have a memorial service when things were open, but that never came to pass because every place that you would consider had a limit (on gathering size).”

Clarke’s experience was more extreme given the suddenness, thoroughness and regulatory nature of the initial pandemic lockdown. But, even a quick scan of local obituaries reveals that, two years into COVID-19, a significant number of families continue to opt out of public mourning.

In the last week, for example, only 35 of the 56 obituaries printed in this newspaper were associated with visitations and/or a timely memorial service.

Of those with public gatherings of some sort, two mentioned at least one or more components of the three-part Roman Catholic Rite of Christian Burial, which includes a Mass.

Another offered a remote attendance option. One stated that masks were required for visitors. One mentioned that burial would be delayed until warmer weather.

Of the remaining 21 obituaries not linked to public memorials, five referred to delayed services — ranging from a future Mass to the emerging, more secular trend of “celebration of life.” Another six referred to private family services. A final 10 said there would be no services or did not mention any observance.

GRIEVING SOLO

The timing of her family members’ deaths was particularly hard on Clarke, as they immediately preceded deep lockdown.

“There was three months that I was home alone with no way to get out … very depressing,” Clarke said, noting her former workplace remained closed for months.

She hunkered down, focusing on her cats.

“I don’t know that having a funeral would have been any more comforting,” she reflected of those early days. “The worst part was the isolation.”

Gene Fahey, vice president and general manager of Altmeyer Funeral Homes, said he can relate.

It’s his family’s longtime business to assist families through death and the grieving process, but even the Faheys were blindsided by how COVID has disrupted such things, he said.

In late November 2020, his mother, Catherine Fahey, died of non-COVID causes at an area nursing home, he said. Because state bans on visitation to such facilities did not lift until vaccinations began dropping COVID deaths in early 2021, the family had not been able to visit in person for nearly a year.

“Grief is very real and it seems to be helpful to the process when it’s shared,” Fahey said of his own family deciding to do a full, public memorial of Catherine Fahey’s life, rather than grieve alone.

“That was the most difficult thing, to not be with her before she died,” Fahey said. “Having that public funeral and public visitation and public Mass was really important to us because we missed so much at the end.”

While he acknowledged COVID continues to disrupt public memorials one way or another, Fahey said Altmeyer is now seeing a refreshed commitment to traditional visitations and services among the majority of their clients. He believes this reflects the same human need to remember and celebrate life that his own family faced.

“They find ways,” Fahey said, noting that even those opting out of traditional, timely observances are often still memorializing in ways that tweak the system.

He’s seen a slight increase in private visitations, for example, and in delaying memorial-style funerals for life celebrations that can wait until weather is warmer and a service can be conducted outdoors.

Fahey’s also seen an increase in visitations that are open to the public, but involve masks. Now that this method of disease control is a matter of choice for individual businesses, he said Altmeyer has put the matter into the hands of families to avoid friction during what is already a difficult time.

“They dictate to us what the policy will be for that family,” he said of offering masks at entry points only if requested or if a church setting requires it.

At the Roman Catholic Mt. Calvary Cemetery in Wheeling, Deacon Douglas Breiding said he is seeing similar flexing of observances but an ongoing commitment to memorials as COVID drags on.

While cemetery practices are again largely traditional now that public services can take place, he has noticed families are sometimes spacing out the three traditional elements of Roman Catholic death – a vigil, a funeral Mass and a committal service at the burial site. The delay is sometimes allowed by cremation, he noted.

“It’s still preferable to do all three,” Breiding said. But, he noted it is understandable that, “given everything that’s going on,” such long-practiced traditions remain in flux.

LIFE GOING ON

Clarke, wearing a hot pink coat against this week’s bitter cold, said she has come to the point in grieving at which that lack of a traditional service simply is what it is.

She even sees a silver lining to the timing of her husband’s death, prior to which the couple had been traveling to a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center facility for him to get chemotherapy.

“It was so much better that he died without having to deal with the COVID,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to go in with him. I would have been sitting in the parking lot.”

And, service or no service, life has gone on, she said. This holiday was spent in Florida. She has a remote job with the Hershey Company’s Pittsburgh district that gets her out of the house regularly.

“I have met the most fabulous people,” Clarke said of loving this new season of employment even while she’s not quite ready to clear her husband’s stuff out of the garage. “I can’t say enough good about it for my mental health.”

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