Last April, my brother Tom died but the coronavirus pandemic prevented my family from arranging a traditional funeral.
Tom had bravely battled advanced cancer for four years and his prognosis was worsening, but the quickness of his death, a year ago today, was a shock. We wonder but will never know if he had COVID-19. Like so many families, we couldn’t say goodbye through the usual comforting rituals. Our family’s church in Connecticut, where Tom lived, wasn’t holding funerals then and it didn’t feel safe to travel there from my home in California.
The inability to mourn Tom properly added anger and frustration to the expected pain and sorrow that accompany a loved one’s death.
I knew many had suffered tremendous loss, so I wrote about my family’s situation a month later in the hope of finding connection. I wanted to tell others they weren’t alone; I needed to find a positive way to channel my frustration and honor my brother, since traditional pathways were blocked.
I got that connection, from friends, as expected, but also from strangers in the U.S. and around the world. One man emailed from India, offering me condolences and relating how his mother, alone in Mumbai, held a funeral for his father while he was stuck in Delhi and his children remained in New Jersey. He and many others don’t know how much their messages meant.
A florist demonstrates how to make floral arrangement for a funeral, amid the Coronavirus pandemic at a floral shop in Arlington, Virginia on February 22, 2021. (Photo: OLIVIER DOULIERY, AFP via Getty Images)
We were finally able to arrange Tom’s funeral in late October, almost seven months after he died. It helped us so much.
I know we’re at an odd time – rising vaccination numbers raise hopes of an end to the pandemic; health experts warn against relaxing amid variants and another possible surge – but I decided to write again with a good-news update and to encourage others to find ways to commemorate life events when it is safe to do so. That applies to happy occasions, too: weddings, graduations, anniversaries, milestone birthdays. If they can’t be re-created, they can still be acknowledged.
And, while holding a funeral helped my family and me emotionally and spiritually, it’s not the only way to heal, just our way of recovering something temporarily lost. That option may not be possible or desirable for others. It’s a matter of finding whatever works best to preserve whatever we can.
It wasn’t easy to pull off Tom’s funeral, although cremation eliminated the time constraints associated with a traditional burial. We had to postpone an August date due to travel restrictions in the Northeast. As one COVID wave subsided, we rescheduled for Halloween – I think Tom would have appreciated the connection to a holiday associated with death, the afterlife and candy – and I arrived just before rising case rates led to reinstatement of tighter limits for gatherings.
My brother, Tom Keveney (Photo: Kate Keveney)
Far fewer people were able to attend than would have in non-pandemic times; we were deeply appreciative of those who did and felt the support of so many others from afar. We took great care, with everyone masked and socially distanced for the wake, funeral, burial and a chilly reception in a well-ventilated tent. Still, I felt fear and guilt about possibly putting friends in danger; pandemic anxiety was an unwelcome guest. Fortunately, no one contracted the virus.
I was able to honor Tom with a eulogy while, as a reporter and writer, receiving a humorous lesson in humility. The priest told me my proposed text was too long and needed to be cut. What? Another editor? However, he was right, as my real editors usually are.
A friend said the eulogy draft was too much about my pain and should focus more on commemorating my brother’s life. She was right, too.
In a larger sense, the ceremony was for me, my family and others who knew and loved Tom. The tasks that come with planning a funeral – choosing readings, buying flowers, arranging a post-funeral gathering – took on extra significance because of the delay.
The wake for Tom Keveney, who died April 6, 2020, was held at a Hamden, Conn., funeral home almost seven months later on Oct. 31, followed by a funeral Mass and burial. (Photo: Bill Keveney)
I appreciated our good fortune at being able to give Tom a proper sendoff, knowing that so many other families are still waiting to say similar goodbyes. Such a ceremony may be impossible in many cases.
Some of my friends have held beautiful Zoom memorials for family members who have died. I’ve witnessed a sweet intimacy during those online gatherings, as everyone can share individual remembrances, something not always possible at an in-person service.
Having held Tom’s funeral made it easier to get through the holidays, when the pain of a lost loved one can be even more acute. Oddly, the way the pandemic upended traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas routines gave us an unintended benefit. These weren’t the usual holidays for anyone.
Along with healthcare providers and first responders, those working in the funeral industry are also on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. These funeral home workers will now be able to get the vaccine in South Carolina. (Feb. 10)
I’ve been missing Tom more as the first anniversary of his death approached, but being able to hold his funeral has helped soften the pain.
At some point, my brother Pete, my sister Kate and I will go to a ballgame at Fenway Park, one of Tom’s favorite places. That will give us another chance to remember and celebrate him. Every opportunity to do that is worth it.
We’ve all lost something, large or small, during the pandemic. It’s worth reclaiming what we can.
Traditions, ceremonies and acknowledgments help us find peace. They give us joy. They mark important moments in our lives and provide a chance to experience them with family and friends. We shouldn’t let COVID take those away, too.
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