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COVID-19 is changing the way families experience grief, experts say

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MISHAWAKA, Ind.— For years, Pat Hahn and his staff at Hahn Funeral Home in Mishawaka have provided services for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

But the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way he does that job.

“I miss the handshakes, the small talk,” Hahn said. “I miss seeing people come in and out. I think we’re all missing that right now.”

To respond to the restrictions put into place on large gatherings during the pandemic, Hahn Funeral Home is keeping services reserved for immediate family members and practicing social distancing by limiting the size of funerals and services. 

Hahn’s staff wears gloves and masks and instead of handing out tissue boxes, they pass out individually packaged Kleenex.

Food is no longer allowed inside of the funeral home and cemeteries are keeping groups to 10 people or less when graveside. 

Though restrictions are tight, Hahn’s team has found ways to still celebrate the life of a recently departed loved one.

We had a funeral last week and the son was in Hawaii and unable to get here so we actually recorded the service for him and sent it off to him,” Hahn said. “We’ve been doing a lot of live-streaming lately.”

The team has been using Zoom so that more family and friends can log into the service, be it from another state or while sitting outside of the funeral home in their car. 

Some families have chosen to take turns with each other spending time inside of the funeral home with their loved one and some have chosen to wait and hold memorial services after the pandemic has passed.

Hahn said that while they’re doing their best to provide memorial and funeral services for families, he said it’s just not the same as before the pandemic.

“You don’t realize all of the people you touch,” Hahn said. “It’s great therapy for a family to see those people, to make connections. I think people are missing out on that.”

Program Director of Ryan’s Place Laurenne Hamlin experiences firsthand the impact that COVID-19 is having on the grief process as a whole.

“There are a lot of changes in the ways that people are going to have process grief now,” Hamlin said. “If someone is to die now in a hospital, most likely, their family is not able to be there, whether its from COVID-19 or not.”

Hamlin said the absence or delaying of a final goodbye can hinder the start of the grief process.

Ryan’s Place is a grief center in Goshen that provides services for children and families who have lost a loved one. 

In order to make the grief process understandable for their young clients, Ryan’s Place breaks it down into three steps. 

“The first step is to acknowledge that the person has died and COVID-19 has made it hard to get to that first step because there is no final goodbye,” Hamlin said. “Then you move into feeling your feelings, processing those difficult feelings and that comes with talking and sharing and really allowing yourself to feel sad, to feel angry.”

In the third step, Hamlin said, people should look for hope.

“Ask yourself, how are you going to go on, what does your new normal look like, and how are you going to continue to honor that person as you move forward,” Hamlin said.

Hamlin acknowledged that many of the typical ways in which families honor a departed loved one are temporally restricted, but said something as simple as wearing your loved one's favorite sweatshirt or cooking their favorite meal can help with grieving them.

Ryan’s Place is continuing to offer its services during the pandemic and has moved its grief support groups online as in-person outlets for grief support are put on hold.

Hamlin said that kids will likely be impacted most by COVID-19’s interruption in the grief process, as they often need the finality of a funeral or some type of service in order to say goodbye.

“Without that, families have got to get creative in what they do to honor that person’s life,” Hamlin said. “Something that we’ve encouraged families to do, is to paint rocks and then when and if a person is buried, they can bring those rocks to a cemetery. It’s a nice touchpoint for the kids. They can go back to the cemetery and see the rocks they’ve made and bring more rocks over time.”

Hamlin said that the most important thing someone who is experiencing grief can do is to reach out for help.

“Reach out and find some kind of support especially if you’re on your own,” Hamlin said.

Whether it’s choosing to delay funerals until the pandemic subsides or holding a smaller service, Hahn and Hamlin agree that some type of way to say goodbye, though it may be more difficult and a bit different, is necessary.

“A lot of people think funerals are for the deceased, actually, funerals are for the living,” Hahn said.

Visit Ryan’s Place’s website for more information about accessing its grief support services during the pandemic.

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