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THE LAST RESPONDERS

About this series

Along with provoking a pandemic, COVID-19 has triggered a grief epidemic. It has robbed families of final goodbyes, left loved ones to die with strangers, postponed wakes and funerals. And it has overwhelmed Maine’s “Last Responders,” priests, chaplains, funeral directors and hospice workers who must work around restrictions aimed at diminishing virus infections. Pine Tree Watch takes readers on an emotional journey into the lives of families who have lost loved ones and the Last Responders who must find new ways to console and comfort.

Stories by Barbara Walsh
Photography by Yoon S. Byun

The Last Responders: Consoling the dying and grieving in the COVID-19 era

As the coronavirus upends end-of-life rituals, many people cannot be with loved ones as they die. Priests and funeral directors work to provide closure.

Saying goodbye to Dad

A journalist can’t help but think of her father’s death as she writes and reports on dying during the pandemic.

A valiant father, husband and cancer fighter loses the battle to COVID-19

After fighting pancreatic cancer for 18 months, a central Maine man succumbs to COVID-19 as his family fights to be with him at the hospital.

Zooming a final goodbye

Locked out of their dying mother’s assisted living home, a family must say goodbye virtually while their mother’s priest Zooms last rites.

Guidance for Grieving

How to support those who have lost family members during the pandemic

Adapted from a post by grief counselor Alan D. Wolfelt of the Center for Loss and Life Transition.

When someone dies—of COVID-19 or any cause — during this pandemic, their loved ones are being left to grieve in especially harrowing circumstances. They may not have been able to be by the dying person’s side in the hospital or long-term care facility. They may have been prevented from spending time with the body, which we know helps mourners say hello on the path to goodbye. And due to social distancing mandates, they have probably been unable to gather with friends and family to provide each other essential mutual support.

For these and other reasons, it’s a terrible time for loss. It’s a terrible time to be grieving.

If you would like to support a grieving person during this time, you might feel unsure about what to say or do. After all, many of the time-honored methods of demonstrating your care and concern — such as attending the funeral or stopping by the family’s home to offer an embrace and your presence — aren’t options. Yet you can still be a light in this dark time. The principles that follow will guide you.

Get in touch, and stay in touch.
To convey your love and support, video calls are the best substitute for face-to-face conversations. Voice calls come second. After that, emails, texting, and social media work too. And don’t forget the power of the handwritten note! Depending on how close you are to the family, I recommend reaching out to the grieving person at least once a week in the coming months—and even more often than that in the beginning.

Be an exemplary listener.
On video calls or the phone, try to listen most of the time. When you do talk, validate what the grieving person has said to you. In their isolation, they still need their experience witnessed and affirmed. They still need to feel heard and understood. By actively and attentively listening, you will be giving them this gift.

Say what’s on your heart.
Especially in challenging death circumstances, it can be difficult to know what to say to the grieving family. It’s always OK to say, “I’m so sorry,” “You’ve had to endure so much,” and “My heart is breaking for you.” Keep in mind that the word “condolence” comes from the Latin condolens, meaning “to suffer with another.”

Be genuine, but please refrain from advice-giving, judging, and sharing your own loss stories and religious viewpoints unless you are asked. What I’ve learned from my work as a grief counselor and educator for more than forty years is that what you say is often less important than how you say it. As long as you are genuine and focused on the grieving person’s experience and worldview, your empathy will come across.

Listen to and share memories.
In the early days after a death, grieving people are usually consumed by shock, attending to tasks related to the death, and integrating the reality of the circumstances of the death. But after some time has passed, they are often ready to start thinking about the life of the person who died. You can be someone who listens to the stories they want to tell and, if you have your own memories of the person who died, shares them with the grieving person. Remember that the love lives on, and the memories live on. You can support the grieving person by honoring this.