To experience the loss of a loved one during a pandemic is to have grief compounded by challenges that would be unimaginable at any other time. Unable to be at the side of their family members during their last moments, and unable to come together in the days that followed, families have had to navigate compromise and limitations during an already overwhelming time. But with them every step of the way have been our colleagues, offering what support and guidance they can. This is just one of the many, many stories we have been honoured to be a part of.
Judy’s mother had always been surrounded by love. A fixture of her Chinatown community (as a one friend put it: “She was Mrs. Chinatown”), her friends and family extended across the city and far beyond. In normal times, her passing and her funeral would have been attended by many. Instead, Judy’s family could only join her hospital bed remotely when she passed peacefully in January of 2021. She had left them with plenty of instructions for the arrangements. “She wanted it to be something grand,” Judy recalls, “The hardest part was that we couldn’t give her what she wanted for her final goodbye.” But some of the requests could be accommodated immediately: in lieu of flowers, Judy’s mother had asked that donations be made to the hospital that cared for her. They came flooding in.
Unsure of how to proceed, Judy reached out to her old friend Linda, one of our funeral managers, for guidance. Together, they immediately began to make the arrangements. The service they created would blend traditional Chinese practices with her mother’s Catholic faith, and be webcast live to allow her community to join remotely. They were determined to ensure that despite the restrictions, they would uphold the traditions and ceremonies that meant so much to the woman they love.
A priest officiated for the small gathering at Elgin Mills chapel, dividing the service into two separate sections to allow more family members to be there without exceeding limitations on attendance – only 10 individuals were allowed at the time it was held. That left the family with the awful decision of choosing who could attend. Grandchildren were prioritized in accordance with tradition. Judy’s family brought ceremonial blankets, known as pei, to lay upon their mother and grandmother. It is a gesture of gratitude, symbolic of the blankets that she swaddled them in when they were children. While the ceremony itself celebrated a life well-loved, the absence of so many could not be truly replaced.
The ceremonies we share to honour the departed hold great significance, but it is the act of sharing them that makes them so integral to processing grief. For Judy, the inability to gather even for a shared meal or wake has left the loss feeling open-ended. Food and tokens of love left at her family’s doorsteps and front porches by the community helped somewhat to bridge that isolation, but ultimately could not replace the intimacy and support of a true congregation. Judy describes feeling lonely, empty, and exhausted by the compromise and sacrifice — all feelings echoed by so many families like hers.
For funeral directors, meeting the needs of the family has always been the highest priority. Last year added a second, equally important commitment: safety. Throughout every ceremony and service, funeral teams have worked to ensure that one tragedy does not become another. That has meant presenting customers with the kind of difficult decisions that Judy and her family faced – who can attend and who will join remotely? How can we ensure that elderly or vulnerable family members can be there safely? And if word comes back that someone in attendance has tested positive, how can funeral teams become contact-tracers, moving quickly to prevent an outbreak that could further disrupt services and memorials at that location? Linda put it simply: “We have all been learning as we go.”
This has been a year that redefined the process of grief for people on both sides of the ceremony. It has shown people just how vital it is to navigate the process together, and may ultimately affect how we grieve for years to come. What those changes may be are yet to be seen, but Mount Pleasant Group will continue to be here, offering what choice and solace we can.
Judy hopes that her family will soon be able to come together for another celebration of her mother’s life once our communities fully return to normalcy.