Canadians seeking closure are finally holding funerals, memorials delayed by COVID-19

For more than a year since Neil McIlveen’s death, his family has been waiting for the opportunity to hold a large gathering to celebrate his life.

When McIlveen died in Hamilton, Ont., in May 2021, lockdown measures meant his relatives were unable to hold a proper funeral service or to physically comfort each other.

“When I needed to hug somebody and say, ‘Oh my God, Neil’s gone,’ there was nothing — so you kind of live in denial a little bit,” said McIlveen’s sister, Ann Marie Burnside.

Burnside’s is one of many families who had to pause their grieving over the past two years, as gathering limits, travel restrictions and infection fears left thousands of Canadians unable to say goodbye to a dying loved one, or to gather to honour their life afterwards.

But as Canada comes out the other side of pandemic restrictions, many families — including McIlveen’s — are planning belated memorial services for this summer. 

Neil McIlveen, left, died in May 2021, during the third wave of COVID-19 in Ontario. His niece Darlene McIlveen, also pictured, says his family is planning to hold a belated celebration of his life next month. (Submitted by Darlene McIlveen)

“People have been in a suspended state of grief for two years, not having that opportunity to mark their [loved one’s] death and celebrate their life,” said Diana Robinson, funeral director at Celebrations of Life Toronto.

About half of her summer clients are holding services for someone who passed away in 2020.

“These people have had this delayed grief experience … and you can really see the effects on the families like that.”

Similarly, Lougheed Funeral Home in Sudbury, Ont., holds about five memorial services each Saturday, and about half of those are for families who are making up for pandemic delays, says managing director Gerry Lougheed.

Grief on pause

Funeral directors say many bereaved families are discovering their grief is no less painful now than it was at the time of a death months or years ago.

“We did a service recently for a young gentleman that passed away almost two years ago, and the service was like the passing had just happened — it was still so fresh and raw,” said Kelsi Palmer from Speers Funeral Chapel in Regina. 

“Even though time has gone on since that person has left, it really feels like day one for those family and friends that didn’t get the chance at that time to have a proper farewell and gathering.”

During lockdowns, some families used video platforms like Zoom to say a final goodbye to a loved one or to watch a funeral. In this photo, a mother and daughter view a burial service online from their home in Orefield, Pa., on April 29, 2020. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

That feeling is a familiar one for McIlveen’s family. Only two relatives were able to visit him in hospital before his death, holding up a phone to his ear so others could say goodbye.

The “gregarious and very outgoing” secondary school teacher had asked his relatives to hold “a big party” after his death, his niece Darlene McIlveen said.

But with gathering sizes limited, and restrictions on travel making it a challenge for another of his sisters to fly in from New Zealand, those plans were put on hold — and so was his family’s mourning.

“Last year, it seemed like a fantasy that we would ever have a big party…. There’s this lack of closure, this continuous grieving that happens,” Darlene McIlveen said.

They are hoping some of that closure comes next month, when about 100 family and friends gather to remember her beloved uncle, and to start to let go of the grief they’ve held onto for the past 14 months.

“It’s something that I’ve really not dealt with … I’m expecting [the party] to be really tough,” Burnside said.

How the pandemic changed grieving

While many families feel the time is right to finally mourn, others feel like too much time has passed, and they no longer plan to hold a service.

“Some people have said … ‘I don’t think it’s relevant to my grieving journey,’ and also, ‘I don’t think I want to bring back those memories,'” said Lougheed, the funeral director.

But skipping a ceremony could mean missing an opportunity to heal from grief, says Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov, a professor of psychiatry and palliative care expert at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, who is leading a team researching the pandemic’s effects on bereavement and grief.

“Grief doesn’t wear a watch or own a calendar, it takes place in its own time course, so even if it’s after the fact, having an occasion where people can gather … to say ‘We’re here to talk about this person,’ just to say what they meant in our lives, can be healing.”

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Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba, says belated funerals for people who died during the pandemic can give their loved ones a chance to move forward in their grief.

He says people who couldn’t be by a dying family member’s bedside, and instead had to say goodbye over Zoom or FaceTime, were left feeling like they didn’t have a chance to provide care and affirmation to their loved one at the end of their life.

The inability to hold a timely and fitting funeral soon after their loved one’s death has made it harder for people to move forward in their grief, Chochinov says, but holding some form of in-person remembrance event — however belated — can help with moving on.

“It’s not only listening to the words that are said … but also the touch, the hugs, seeing a look in another person’s eye and knowing that in this moment, you and I are sharing this collective time of grieving together,” he said.

“It allows us to take control back in some ways so that [while] we didn’t have a say over the fate of our loved one, we can make sure that that person is remembered and acknowledged in a way that would be fitting of who they were in our lives.”

Mark Irvine’s family — spread between Ontario, Alberta and Scotland — has waited two years to gather for a proper farewell for his father, John, who died in Edmonton in August of 2020.

They planned to take his father’s remains back to Rothesay, Scotland, last year, before rising COVID-19 cases twice forced them to postpone the trip.

“We were like, ‘in just a few more months, just a few more months.'”

Now, Irvine and family have just two more weeks to wait until they fly to Scotland to finally lay his father to rest and hold a celebration of life with their extended family.

“For my mother, it was non-negotiable: it’s critical that Dad goes back … and we’re going to close this out the way it should be done, and that’s with my dad in Rothesay.”

John Irvine, left, pictured here with his family, died in Edmonton in August 2020. His wife and children will travel from Canada to Scotland to hold a celebration of life service next month. (Supplied by Mark Irvine)

Irvine says the family was lucky they were able to organize their trip around school holidays, time off work, and another family event in Rothesay — an example of the new level of flexibility that the pandemic has brought to arranging memorial services, including how soon they should take place after a death.

“[Before COVID], when somebody died, it was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to do something the next few days, and I’m going to have to leave work, and I have to get my grandchildren from school,’ whatever it is,” Lougheed said.

“Because of the delays with COVID, people now say, ‘What is the convenient date for us to grieve?'”

Planning belated memorials

Lougheed suggests instead of plucking a date at random, people choose a significant date for their memorial — for instance, the deceased person’s wedding anniversary.

“That’s a date that’s going to have memories anyway. Why not use that as the day to gather family and say, ‘Let’s get out the wedding pictures, let’s celebrate that good day.’ And you know what? We may shed some tears. We’re also going to have lots of laughter and we’re going to say, ‘Boy, look at how my hairstyle was 30 years ago.'”

Another challenge families face is how to get the word out to their loved one’s wider community, including friends and colleagues.

Robinson suggests using a digital invitation and RSVP service, such as Greenvelope, which can be shared via email, social media and text message, and posted to community and organization websites.

As for deciding on the format of a service, Chochinov says people should follow their intuition and “celebrate who that person was in ways that feel authentic.”

“After a year or two has passed, the feelings that we have and the way in which they manifest may be quite different than in the days and weeks after a death, so if it feels more like a celebration and less like a funeral, that’s perfectly fine.”

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