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04/23/2020 12:01 AM

How to Offer Support When the World is Falling Apart

With the arrival of COVID-19, people mourning their loved ones can still have a service, but usually it is small, involving only immediate family members from the same household, or sometimes five people or less. Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

When June Ryan died, it wasn’t unexpected. Diagnosed with a nervous system disorder 20 years ago, she had over the years struggled through a catastrophic illness, then a broken hip, and, in February, her status was changed to palliative hospice, with no extraordinary measures to be taken when she fell ill again.

Ryan’s daughter, Sharon Ryan, was a regular at Madison House, the healthcare and rehabilitation facility in Madison where her mom lived. Sharon Ryan moved to Madison several years ago to help care for her mom. She was at Madison House so often, the people who lived and worked there became like second mothers to her. Ryan enjoyed having lunch with her mom, settling in for a long chat, helping out when she could, and calling bingo a couple of times, too.

And then, in the middle of March, Ryan says, “the world fell apart.”

The arrival of COVID-19 meant people like her mother and her friends at Madison House were at high risk. Healthcare facilities began to impose restrictions. Ryan’s mother started having trouble breathing. The doctors predicted her death would likely be brought about by pneumonia. Sharon called her mother five times on March 18, each time becoming more worried. When Ryan’s phone rang at 1 a.m. on March 19, she heard that her mother had passed away.

While her mother’s death came as no surprise, Ryan still was shocked and then suffered another shock when she learned she would not be able to have a traditional memorial service and the ability to mourn with her friends and family.

Sharon understood why and she says the Swan Funeral Home, in charge of arrangements, was wonderfully supportive. But, other than running the risk of creating more deaths, there was no other option, other than to postpone the rituals and traditions that had sustained the family when her father James Ryan died 15 years before.

“We are wired to have funerals,” Ryan says, remembering that, after her father’s death, came four days of frantic activity: Planning for the service. Getting in touch with relatives. Helping with accommodations. Coordinating transportation. Grocery shopping to make sure everyone had something to eat when they arrived. Talking with each other. Talking about each other.

“Four days of not having to think. And then people hugging you and their arms around you. Remembering things. Telling stories. We haven’t had any of that,” Ryan says. “So the main thing, the main problem for me is that it just doesn’t seem real. All of the sudden this happened. And then all of the sudden the world turned upside down.”

Left Bereft

Ryan, along with her brothers and extended family, are among those recently left bereft by a death of a loved one, followed by the stunning realization that, due to COVID-19, they would have to postpone the traditions that have comforted mourners for hundreds of years. Hungry for emotional support and physical contact, and the laughter and stories and tears that come with a wake, they must instead wait and for how long, no one really knows.

Alexander Scott, the president of the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association, has been in the business for about 30 years. In the past two weeks the funeral home where he works has had 35 funerals, about twice the usual number.

During the normal course of business, he says, the goal of a funeral director is to find out what the family wants, say yes to that, and then figure out the best way to make that happen. Having to say “No” is heartbreaking, he says.

“And it’s a very fluid situation. What was going on today is not what was going on last week, and the week before that was a completely different story,” he says. “It’s a three-ring circus. So basically our focus right now is getting the deceased to where they need to be. Down the road, when times are safer, and healthier and a little sunnier, we can give a little more focus on getting the living to where they want to be.”

Of course, it’s not clear when those sunnier times will arrive.

He and other funeral directors say the current focus is for funeral homes to make sure the body is cared for with respect and dignity. While the prospect of catching COVID-19 from a large gathering is a fearsome possibility, funeral homes are confident they can prepare the body for burial without endangering their staff, using protocols developed over the years, including during the AIDS epidemic.

Another responsibility falling to funeral homes during this crisis is to create organized tracking methods so that no one gets left behind when it is safe to have services and ceremonies and banquets again.

How to Help

Scott says there are ways people can help those who are mourning the death of their loved ones.

“The way to my heart is through my stomach,” he says. “Send a nice basket of food to the house. Send a personal note. Say, ‘I know what happened and I wanted you to know I’m thinking about you, and please reach out in any way.’”

He says phone calls are fine, but that people should not be concerned or upset if the family in mourning doesn’t have the time or energy right now to return the phone call or talk for a long period of time.

“You never know if you might be calling at a rough time,” he says. “Sending a nice floral arrangement or tribute to the house can brighten up the space a bit. You can send an email. It’s not as personal as a note, but the fact is you are reaching out.”

Jeff Klarman, the president of W.S. Clancy Memorial Funeral Home in Branford, has been working in the family business since he was in high school, and he says that one thing that hasn’t changed during this time of crisis is the need for help and assistance and sympathy from friends and neighbors.

He says the most difficult thing right now is comforting family members who have had someone die from COVID-19. Since family members are not allowed to visit in the hospital, other than over the phone, the last time some of these people saw their loved one might have been when the ambulance picked them up, or when they dropped them off at the hospital.

“That’s the other thing. A lot of people died and families were not able to be with them or see them. They are not able to do that until they get here, and that person’s already passed,” Klarman says. “A lot of people feel badly. A husband, a wife, a son died alone without anyone around them. A lot of people feel badly. It’s very, very sad.”

He says for families who fear a death may be imminent, gaining that understanding and acceptance of the current limitations is important, because those limitations cannot be changed.

“Hopefully this will be over sooner rather than later,” he says.

He agreed with Scott that cards, phone calls, letters, are more important than ever. “Bring a meal over and leave it on their porch,” he says. “Let them know they are not alone.”

Making it Personal

Sharon Ryan says it was a meal, or, more accurately, a dessert, that brought her some sense of healing.

Her mom died on a Friday morning. Friday was the day she usually spent with her mom, having lunch, chatting, and sometimes helping with the bingo games at 2 p.m.

Her oldest brother, Mike, came down that day from his home in Newport. Her other brother, Rob, couldn’t come, because he was under mandatory quarantine after flying the week before. Her third brother, Dave, was also restricted from traveling due to virus-related health concerns.

She and Mike went to Madison House to get her mother’s clothes she would be buried in, but the nursing home was in full lockdown at that point and so Ryan had to describe to the workers there where to find the clothes, so they could be passed out through the door. She and her brothers decided it was important for their mother to be buried, even if the memorial service had to be postponed.

“It was just too uncomfortable for us for her not to be buried. Nobody had given her last rites. Everything was closed down. She was just in limbo really,” Ryan says. “We decided we had to get her buried.”

Ryan woke up on Saturday morning, still in a state of shock. It was her day off from work at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, where she is a bookseller.

“I had Saturday off and I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I called them on the phone and said, ‘Gee, can I come in?’ And they said, ‘Yes, you come in for as long or as little as you want. Whatever. We’re here for you.’ Roxanne [Coady, the owner of the bookstore] has just been wonderful. And being able to work has gotten me through the last three weeks.”

She says it also helped to get phone calls and make phone calls to aunts and uncles and cousins and get all those wonderful wishes. And work. “Just give me something to do,” she says.

Still, it didn’t seem real. It seemed unfinished.

“It’s hard to come out the other side. It’s not the same,” she says. “Nobody’s been able to hug me. I haven’t been able to receive one hug.”

And then her birthday came around, on April 1. It had always been a special day for her and her mother. Her mother always made her strawberry shortcake.

When Ryan went into work that day, there were balloons and cupcakes, and her co-worker and friend Kelly O’Sullivan came in on her day off and “brought me for my birthday, strawberry shortcake.”

The strawberry shortcake made her cry.

“The strawberry shortcake was the first time I had a good, cleansing cry,” she says. “It was personal. It meant she remembered the story. It was awesome. It was so lovely.”

Some Advice

She says if anyone knows of someone going through this, her number-one recommendation would be to keep reaching out. She says some people, like her, aren’t always good at receiving help and support, so it might be good to reach out more than once.

“I need my friends to keep reaching out, which they have been doing,” she says, adding that she is grateful for the support of her family, her friends, and her work family.

She says her mother had this thing called secrets of the universe.

“True secrets of the universe. And one of her secrets of the universe was 24 hugs a day. She used to say to my father, a secret to happiness in life is 24 hugs a day. It will get you through. But we can’t have those hugs. But we can’t have that, because of the virus. So that makes it really difficult.”

Ryan knows that once this passes, she and her family and friends will be able to gather and remember her mom.

There will be hugs.

There will be celebrations with something to eat afterwards.

“You know, until the world rights itself, I am not going to be able to grieve for my mother,” she says. “But this too shall end. This too shall pass.”

Sharon Ryan’s family decided that they would go ahead with a small service now to mark her mother’s death, to be held at West Cemetery in Madison. Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source