Mourning Families Seek Solace From the ‘Grief Purgatory’ of Covid-19

The pandemic has left hundreds of thousands of Americans alone in bereavement, unable to plan proper funerals for their loved ones. Now, they’re planning larger celebrations of life.

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The obituary had promised memorial services at a later date, so in May, Jessica Zimmerman-Selvidge sifted through photos of her father, trying to find the best ones for a celebration of his life.

Time had moved quickly since last November, when her father, Ralph Zimmerman, died from Covid-19 in Springfield, Mo.

But what had remained a constant source of pain, even months after his death, was the lack of a proper funeral. Seven months later, there was finally a chance to gather with loved ones at the local church, where they could share stories of him.

The coronavirus pandemic, which brought social-distancing measures that included restrictions on gatherings, denied thousands of people the opportunity to grieve with others.

Covid-19, which has led to the deaths of more than 600,000 people in the United States as of July, has left millions of Americans bereaved. The authors of an ongoing study from The Journal of Affective Disorders predict that severe grief “will become a worldwide public health concern.”

Sheltering at home during the pandemic left many without a communal release of grief. Others felt cheated by online ceremonies devoid of touch, embraces and social connection. Postponed funerals, memorials and celebrations of life are being held, with hopes that the gatherings will ease feelings of guilt and, at last, open a path for solace. And surging cases of the coronavirus, driven by the more contagious Delta variant, raised the prospect of further postponements.

“It feels really weird that he’s been gone for so long, and we’re just now doing all of this,” Mrs. Zimmerman-Selvidge said. “Normally, once a funeral is over, you kind of feel like you’re moving forward. But we haven’t been able to pivot in that way.”

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Jessica Zimmerman-Selvidge holding a photograph showing, from left, her father, Ralph Zimmerman, her husband, Bryan Selvidge, and herself. Her father liked attending games of the Springfield Cardinals, a minor league team of the St. Louis Cardinals.Credit…Joseph Rushmore for The New York Times

This resolve to still have a funeral is a testament to people’s resilience, said Dr. Katherine Shear, a psychiatrist and the founder and director of the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University.

“Everyone’s trying to celebrate right now, but these people are saying, ‘No, it’s also sad,'” Dr. Shear said. “They’re willing to stay with the pain and the sadness if it means they get a chance to acknowledge the person they lost.”

The effect that end-of-life rituals have on those grieving has not been comprehensively researched but for many cultures, “funerals are a place to release pain,” said Dr. Leela Magavi, a psychiatrist in Newport Beach, Calif.

Rabia Khan of Chicago said that not being able to carry out someone’s vision for their funeral had been frustrating. Before Ms. Khan’s 80-year-old father, Hameed Ullah Khan, died in November last year, he had pictured friends united at the mosque, praying from the Quran and reminiscing about the Pakistani newspaper he created. “It’s amazing we get a second chance at that now,” she said.

For Jeneffer Haynes of Gaithersburg, Md., losing her 30-year-old brother, John Estampador, to Covid-19 in January and having to be alone with her grief was “absolutely indescribable,” she said.

“He was born with Down syndrome, and he was just this big kid, lovable, an absolute joy,” she said.

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Jeneffer Haynes touching a pendant molded from the thumbprint of her brother John. “He loved giving us a thumbs-up,” she said. “That was his thing.”Credit…Rosem Morton for The New York Times

At the funeral in June, she had been asked to stand 10 feet away from his coffin and not embrace the few people there, including her mother, who cried: “Bye, John John. Bye, John John.”

As friends and family got vaccinated, Ms. Haynes planned a larger celebration of her brother’s life on what would have been his 31st birthday.

She bought cupcakes and placed a candle on each. She tied blue balloons to framed photos of her brother. And on the day of the celebration, she wrote to him on Facebook: “Today we would’ve hugged and kissed you, and taken goofy selfies. Instead, we will gather and we will celebrate your life, and we will cry today, John John.”

After singing “Happy Birthday” and blowing out the candles, they did.

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John Estampador’s room has been kept as he left it, with his photos, religious items and a fishing rod.Credit…Rosem Morton for The New York Times

Barbara Sabat said she needed to have a ceremony for her mother, Meryl, this summer in Bensalem, Pa., because if she did not, her feelings of regret would never subside. “I’m in grief purgatory,” she said.

Those who lost someone to Covid-19 are at an increased risk of developing prolonged grief disorder, in which a person’s bereavement is so intense that it disrupts day-to-day activities, experts said. The disorder, they added, affects about 10 percent of people who lose someone close to them.

Because the pandemic disproportionately killed Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color, prolonged grief disorder is likely to become more prevalent in those communities, which already lack adequate mental health resources, experts said.

“When you don’t have that process of a funeral, it can stunt your grieving,” said Kenneth Fowler, a traumatologist based in Tallahassee, Fla.

Religious leaders and funeral directors of various faiths have described the postponed memorials they have presided over this summer as more celebratory than usual.

“For us Native Americans, we need to be together, sharing food, stories, praying so our loved ones who are dead can reach the creator,” said Robert Gill, a funeral director from Buffalo, Minn., and a citizen of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe.

Mr. Gill said he preserved some bodies for months to give people a chance to organize a larger burial service. When those gatherings finally happen, “spirit plates” — with the ancestors’ favorite foods, such as fried ribs, chokeberry jams and roasted buffalo — are served for attendees.

Many families are using the extended planning periods to create detailed remembrances.

Frederick Harris, a Vietnam War veteran, loved Smirnoff vodka with grapefruit juice and Motown music, so that’s what his daughter, Nicole Elizabeth, 34, will serve and play at his memorial in Hadley, Mass., later this year.

“It’s daunting to plan because I want to make it fun and want to be able to share memories with so many people,” she said. “But I’m hoping it’ll bring me some peace because for a lot of us, it’s just been this limbo.”

About 60 people were at the church in June to honor Mrs. Zimmerman-Selvidge’s father. Those attending passed a microphone across the pews and shared memories of him.

Finally, it was his daughter’s turn. Mrs. Zimmerman-Selvidge sighed. “He just loved us all so much,” she said, and then paused.

Her father’s urn was on a table in front of her. In her purse was a letter she had forced herself to write after his death.

It began with words that were sometimes too painful to speak aloud: “I miss you.”

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