Everybody loved Mary Burke (not her real name ). She always had a kind word for people and was ready to help anyone in need. She babysat neighbours' children, attended every funeral in the village, baked cakes for sales of work, and was very involved with her local church and community.
Yet, when Mary, who was on the wrong side of 70 but looked 10 years younger, died recently, there were only a few people at her funeral. Five solitary figures in black suits stood six feet apart from each other as the priest prayed for her soul and offered her family his deepest condolences.
Afterwards, her sons and daughters, united in mourning, tried to console each other from a distance. There were no warm embraces, whispered words of consolation, or the sharing of sweet memories of a special wife, mother, sister, aunt, and grandmother.
And there were no extended family, friends, or neighbours there to fondly remember the woman with the big heart whose Victoria sponge cakes never sank in the middle, and whose life was cruelly cut short by the coronavirus.
Heartbreaking scenes like this are taking place all over the country as families are robbed of the opportunity to mourn their loved ones in the traditional way. The bereaved are now coping with layers of loss as the sacred ceremonies, rituals, and social supports which played such an important role in the grieving process and provided a sense of closure, are no longer available to them because of this global pandemic.
Iggy Clarke, a local counselling psychologist and psychotherapist, says bereavement is distressing and anxiety-provoking at the best of times. However, it has now taken on a new dimension because of Covid-19 and the restrictions imposed regarding funerals.
Grieving is not just one but a host of successive feelings which take time to get through and this process cannot be rushed, he says. "There is no standard way of grieving, we all have our own particular ways. It can turn our world upside-down and it can feel strange, terrible, and overwhelming. Dr Elizabeth Kubler Ross outlined five stages of grief which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. These stages are not sequential or linear in any way but are extremely fluid. They simply can be all mixed up and some experience all five stages every few moments."
Grappling with these powerful emotions and trying to make sense of them may be very difficult in normal circumstances. However, now the bereaved have to face additional challenges due to the coronavirus which may put even more pressure on their already over-extended resources.
"All of us are [living] in heartbreaking times where we are alone and unable to reach out in our normal ways to comfort those who mourn," says Iggy. "We must stand six feet from each other which is disconcerting in itself. The only option in these times is to send our condolences online.
"In Covid times house private has taken on a new meaning, there is no great gathering of family and friends, no wake, no handshake, no funeral, few visits of the priest or minister. No opportunity to say goodbye or perhaps deal with unfinished business. There is no space for the introduction of one's friends to the rest of the family and many of the memories and stories from neighbours and friends have to be postponed for now.
"Gone is the opportunity for them to arrive with sandwiches, tarts, dinners, buns, and cakes. Forming a guard of honour is reduced which deprives our loved ones of the honour, dignity, and respect they rightfully deserve. We are deprived of the closure that often comes from wakes, funerals, and burials. A lot of healing happens around these rituals when one is physically present and able to say goodbye. Sadly, we are now robbed of all of that. Today we must listen to the lonely sound of the funeral emanating from laptops or smart phones wishing and hoping that our sorrow and support could gently move through cyberspace and surround those grieving with hugs of love and concern."
The Irish rituals surrounding loss are meaningful and help people grieve in a healthy way, he believes. Grief should be a time of connecting and being present for each other, he feels, but it is harder to do this right now.
"Much of what we are going through today is like war-times or traumas which result from terrorist attacks. We are suffering most because we cannot hug someone. This human touch is an expression of comfort beyond words and we are publicly denied that now. In this time of loss there is no measure of how painful or horrible it is for people."
He recommends that following the loss of a loved one, families should immediately connect with each other in the most visual way possible. It is important for key people in the life of the deceased to communicate with each other and share their grief through whatever medium with which they feel comfortable.
"Connect through WhatsApp, Skype, Viber, Zoom, or any other platform that works. We need to see each others' faces just to know we are connected and there for each other when the physical presence is off limits. There is an unreality about funerals now so it is important to grieve as much as possible when grief first hits. The grieving process will be prolonged when we are without our usual rituals to comfort us. So it is vital to be patient with the process in these times."
Ensuring funerals remain as visual as possible through live streaming, a service some funeral undertakers now provide, is particularly beneficial at this time.
"It is important for loved ones to gather visually on the phone to share photos and old videos and tell stories of their loved one. It is especially important to remember the happy stories that keep the human touch going."
Guilt, one of the stages of grief, may become more of an issue for the bereaved as they also mourn their inability to say proper goodbyes. "Some degree of guilt is often present in our normal grieving process – we beat ourselves up thinking of things that we might have done or said differently – but it is likely to be exaggerated now with Covid 19."
While this pandemic may have taken away the comforting rituals associated with the passing of a loved one, there are many ways in which people can still honour the memories of their deceased, according to the psychologist.
"Even if contact is not physical, it can be emotional, intellectual, and most of all spiritual. From a spiritual perspective, it is a most powerful healing tool to sit down and write a letter to your loved one. In it you can say all that you wished you had said and done. This is also a space for you to ask your loved one for forgiveness for any disharmony that may have been between you. Remember where your loved one now resides in spirit – there are no judgments – only love prevails.
"Honour your feelings as they are a vital part of dealing with your loss. When these uncomfortable feelings come, try not to push them away or deny them. Feelings will come in waves and when they do allow them to come and go in their own time. We now need to do this sensitively and with greater awareness using our own inner resources in the absence of our normal social supports."
According to Iggy Clarke, it is important for people to find a way to work through their grief during these uncertain times. This can be done in a number of ways, such as listening to some gentle meditations, practicing yoga, or journaling - writing down how you feel daily will allow you to discharge your emotions in a healthy way. All of these helpful methods will keep people grounded, he says, until they can avail of greater community support.
"The internet cannot replace real life but it can be used to create accessible memories by creating a funeral slideshow to keep the memories of your loved ones alive. This can be downloaded for free from 'Movavi slideshow maker'."
He says everyone is grieving to some extent at the moment. "The whole world has lost something but this universal grief may become really transformative."
Mariel Forde Clarke, an Oranmore based spiritual counsellor and teacher who is married to Iggy Clarke, believes society is currently experiencing a major spiritual crisis.
"We are the new spiritual refugees. This global crisis may bring humanity to awareness about how other people have suffered and many of us have chosen to ignore it, for example, the refugees in Syria or the children of Yemen being used as human shields against the bullets of war, all having no control over their plight or circumstances. Today, we are going through the exact same, only we are fortunate, many of us have homes, we are able to buy food, but we are now Covid refugees. Believe it or not, this is a time for everyone to surrender and turn to the energy of the Divine and trust that a far greater power governs our world.
"There are many hearts suffering, many tears are being shed, loved ones are dying, and this is a reality that the whole world is going through. What is happening now is a collective and most powerful transformation and healing of this earth. It is a cleansing at the deepest and highest level of purification which is bringing mankind to its knees."
Many people are now looking inside themselves and examining their core beliefs, she says. "We are now asking: 'What do I believe in? or Do I belief in anything at all?' It is not important what you believe in or what you don't believe in. The bottom line is how you treat your fellow human beings. God is in religion but is also in the absence of religion. Whether you believe in God as Allah, Buddha, Krishna, Mecca or Great Spirit, know that a God spark of divinity resides in each of us and that essence will guide us through this crisis.
"This pandemic has shown us that the true story of our lives is not about our physical life but about our eternal life. The whole world is experiencing pain as numerous souls are being lost to the virus and other tragedies. We are angry, we are blaming, we are fearful of what's going to happen. It is no coincidence that the coronavirus means 'crown' which is the breath of life that is being taken away.
"This is the greatest time for humanity to heal the errors of its ways and also one of the most painful times as it exposes the immense frailty of our human existence. If we can take ourselves back to the essence of the Divine there will be a great support for us. God is a mighty presence beyond the imagination, beyond the world of books, beyond ownership. It is for us to journey back into the inner sanctum of ourselves to reach that God spark within each of us irrespective of religion, race, or creed."
Mariel says while people are tremendously distressed about not being able to spend time with their dying loved ones in hospital, they should find reassurance in the fact that on a spiritual level no-one dies alone.
"They are lovingly held in the highest energy surrounded by a host of angels and higher beings of light. Despite your physical absence, they do not die alone. During these painful and heartbreaking times know from a physical level although you were not there to hold their hand or say goodbye, that on a spiritual level, your loved one was held in the most profound state of love. Trust and believe that their deceased loved ones came to guide them home.
"How do I know this - because through my work I have been a witness to such profound experiences. No soul is left to make that final journey alone. They travel in the company of those gone before them who take their hand and lead them into the light. Every soul regardless of what they believe or not believe in continues to exist in the higher realms beyond the veil of death."