Pandemic poses challenges to the dying and their loved ones
November 19, 2020
Photos of Mary Alice Wardian show her surrounded by different assortments of her eight children, 21 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
She enjoyed being surrounded by family, her children said, and they gathered at least weekly at her home, even when she moved into an assisted living residence.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Just before St. Patrick’s Day, visitors were no longer allowed at the assisted living center in Omaha because of the health vulnerabilities of its elderly residents. Wardian could no longer meet with family, or even go to the dining room for meals. No more weekly entertainment at the facility, no more card games, no more manicures.
The 91-year-old had to stay in her room and have meal trays brought to her. And the matriarch who had always been surrounded by family was suddenly isolated.
Wardian was never one to ask for help, said daughters Sue Wardian Hartung and Liz Fox, both of St. Thomas More Parish in Omaha. But they knew that their mother, who suffered from dementia, was deteriorating.
They were experiencing what many others are going through as loved ones undergo illness, hospitalizations, hospice and death during the coronavirus pandemic – often isolated from family and friends.
Wardian died about six months after leaving assisted care to stay with Fox at her home.
“When you’ve got a vulnerable adult, especially if dementia is involved at all, that isolation is just crushing,” said Wardian Hartung, who’s a nurse. After taking their mother out of assisted living, “you could just see what a huge difference it made.”
‘DIFFICULT ALL THE WAY AROUND’
Deacon Kevin Joyce, and his wife, Liz, know the struggles of being separated from a sick and dying family member. They’re mourning the death of Liz’s mother, Josephine James, who died June 29.
The 96-year-old, who also suffered from dementia, had been living in an assisted living facility, was hospitalized, in rehabilitation and back in the hospital before her death. And at every step, she had to be isolated from family because of coronavirus concerns.
“She was not lucid enough to manage using a tablet or cell phone,” Deacon Joyce said, but the family tried communicating with her by phone and by waving from outside. But those attempts were “not overly successful,” he said. “She didn’t understand what was going on.”
Liz Joyce – who has 10 siblings, all with spouses – was able to spend some time with her mother at the hospital before her death, but she was the only family member to be able to do so. At that time, hospital rules allowed just one visitor, with no substitutes.
“It was just difficult all the way around,” Deacon Joyce said. “Everybody felt they had no control and were pushed to the sideline.” Family members did “what they could do to be close to their loved one.”
Arranging for a priest to visit and administer sacraments was also difficult, he said, and ultimately, James passed away before that could happen.
“That’s probably one of the saddest or most upsetting things,” Deacon Joyce said, “because we tried to do everything we could.”
HOSPICE AND DYING
In hospice, the hands-on care of health professionals and caregivers is important, said Lisa Ramold, a bereavement coordinator for CHI Health at Home – Home Care and Hospice, and a member of Holy Name Parish, both in Omaha.
But because of masks, patients can’t see the facial expressions of their caregivers, loved ones or chaplains. Health concerns might also prevent visitors from being able to hold hands with a patient and pray.
“So much of those kinds of things are missing,” Ramold said.
Sometimes family members can’t be present in hospice facilities, and that adds another dimension to their grief, she said.
There are common regrets the bereaved have to deal with, Ramold said, but now there’s an added “I didn’t get to say goodbye” or “I wasn’t able to be there with them.”
Everyone wants to make sure people are physically safe, but the emotional and spiritual part of dying is being neglected, Ramold said.
Employees at hospitals, care centers and hospice organizations are trying to help, she said, including making electronic connections. “They are being much more creative in how they serve people, and that might be good in the long run” to help out-of-town relatives and others stay connected.
“We need to live the corporal works of mercy,” said Deacon James Tardy, outreach manager at Catholic Cemeteries, who also serves at St. Cecilia Parish in Omaha.
And one of those works of mercy is burying the dead.
“The Catholic progression of death” – the rites that take place before, during and after death – “recognize a life dignified in Christ,” he said. “As Catholics, that’s really important.”
“I think COVID gives people a reason not to have a funeral, and that’s not healthy. I fear there will be long-term ramifications,” he said. “Through the sacramental process there’s healing, and I think COVID has interrupted that healing.”
The coronavirus pandemic may be accelerating a trend in which the children of deceased persons decide not to have funeral Masses or other rites, he said.
Even postponing funerals because of health concerns “gives grief a different quirk that we don’t really know how to deal with,” Deacon Tardy said.
And at timely funerals with limited attendance, the restrictions caused by the disease, especially no hugging or touching, are “totally contrary to what everybody grows up with” in regard to the grieving process.
“We won’t know for five years, sociologically, what has been taken from us,” he said. “But I’m very fearful of it.”
GRIEVING IN ISOLATION
During the pandemic the isolation often continues for the family left behind, Ramold said. When she calls people following a death, she hears about feelings of isolation, especially from widows and widowers.
They’re not getting as many people visiting and often can’t get out, even to go to a store or church, because they’re trying to be safe from COVID. Those little outings are important, to give people a break from their grief, Ramold said.
During warmer weather, elderly mourners could visit with family or friends outside and from a distance. But they couldn’t really hang out with people and talk – or get a hug. “It’s just that physical touch and close presence that you can’t replace,” Ramold said. “Emotionally, we need that support, that touch.”
“They’ve lost their spouse of many years, and they don’t have the same support systems and activities,” she said. “They’re left in their house with constant reminders (of their spouse), and they don’t get a break from it.”
Ramold said these problems could intensify during the winter, normally a time when seniors drive less because of increased darkness and weather hazards. The pandemic might cancel events that people normally look forward to, “that can get you through difficult days.”
Ramold invites people to be creative in staying in touch with mourners and offering support. That could be through phone calls, video calls, social media, at properly distanced family events or celebrations, or by dropping off flowers, donuts or a meal. Maybe just offer to take someone on a drive, for a chance to get out of the house and chat, she said.
Other recommendations: Encourage participation in the faith through televised or livestreamed Masses and Catholic radio programs. Help them start a new hobby.
People might consider buying a grieving loved one a smartphone or tablet for Christmas, she said, and teach that person how to use it. Or maybe just offer an old computer that could be used to email, connect with online apps or order groceries.
Holidays, especially the first ones without a beloved family member, can be difficult. But those occasions likely will be worse without other family members present. If large holiday gatherings are discouraged, maybe invite the bereaved to a small one, Ramold said.
Don’t be afraid to say the name of the person who died, Ramold said. Sharing memories and allowing mourners to talk about their loved ones is important, she said.
She invites grieving Catholics to turn to prayer.
Mourners also can reach out to Catholic Cemeteries for help, even if their loved one isn’t buried in one of the organization’s five Omaha cemeteries.
Ramold said she has arranged grief support groups online through Zoom, but it’s not the same as being there in person.
Sometimes there are technical glitches, and some people aren’t computer savvy.
But more importantly, “it’s more difficult to get people to connect with people they’ve never met on a screen rather than talking in person,” Ramold said.
“They’re trying bravely to open up about their grief,” she said.
‘IMPORTANCE OF FAMILY’
Deacon Joyce said he does see some blessings that have resulted from the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think it has awakened people to the importance of family – and not just the ones who have died … to the importance of nurturing and paying attention to relationships and coming up with creative ways of being there when you can’t physically be there,” he said.
“The pandemic has given us an excuse to reach out to others and to be close,” Deacon Joyce said. “And we need to take advantage of that. You have to be willing to say, ‘I’m hurting today, and I just need someone to tell me it’s going to be OK.’”
Even before the pandemic, Deacon Joyce said, he would encourage mourners to call someone when they think about their deceased loved one, to share a story and laugh and cry with that person. “Because it’s celebrating their life – and laughing and crying and remembering, that’s important.”
Fox and Wardian Hartung said they are grateful that their mother could be surrounded by family again as she was dying.
“It was wonderful for the whole family to be able to come and go,” Wardian Hartung said. “So everybody did get to say goodbye.”
“We were able to stay there and say a rosary and just kind of be there for her as she struggled through her last few breaths,” she said.
“We got to be there. We could keep telling her, whether she could hear or not, ‘We’re right here, Mama. If you see an angel, grab his hand.’
“So we have no regrets, none at all.”