April 2020. About a month into the pandemic.
Every morning, I went to work by opening my computer. Like everyone else, I had switched my college classes to an online platform and was growing accustomed to my students as small boxes on a screen. Despite expectations to the contrary, teaching online had quickly become the most important part of my day. I looked forward to seeing their faces, engaging with them. Having contact.
One morning, my most dedicated student was absent. She had been coming to class diligently. Never even late. But that morning, she wasn’t there. No box.
After class, I wrote to her to see what was going on. Eventually, I received a notification from the college server that she had written back. She’s alive at least, I remember thinking to myself.
I clicked on the link and opened her message.
“My mother-in-law died,” she wrote. “She was living in a long-term residence.”
My heart skipped a beat. For the past few weeks, her family had been wrestling with the question of what they should do with her. They didn’t want to leave her in the assisted-living residence where so many were dying, but they did not have the capacity to take care of her at home. They had been wringing their hands since the pandemic started and now their worst fears had come true. Stories like this one were flooding the news. Death in a long-term residence had become the new nightmare.
“We weren’t allowed to say goodbye,” she explained. “We weren’t allowed to see the body. All we got was a call. She was dead. And then her body was shipped off in a bag to somewhere else. Not even a funeral . . .”
COVID-19 has delivered many cuts. Some deep, others less so. But we have all been hurt by this experience: illness, financial loss, isolation, fear. But I think one of the most traumatizing experiences—the one with the most long-lasting effects—will prove to be this one: not being allowed to say goodbye.
Religions offer many services, but the most important role religions play is as companion and guide in the final hours. Religions provide us with rituals, rules, direction, and guidance at a time when we are the most lost. They direct us in how to care for the body, how to wash it, wrap it, tend to it lovingly. They take our hand and walk us through a moment when we may be unable to think straight. And then they walk us through the funeral, through a period of mourning, until we feel ready to walk on our own again.
But with COVID, so many of these rituals have been taken away.
“Maybe you could create a small funeral at home for your mother-in-law,” I suggested. “We need ritual more than we realize—especially at times like this. Light a candle together in her name. Remember her together.”
She thanked me for the thought, but it was clear that she was stumbling. This is what religions are supposed to do for us. We need to lean on others in times of crisis. It is not the time to have to create things on our own.
I recently met with religious leaders at an online conference hosted by the Elijah Interfaith Institute. When I asked them what had challenged them the most during this crisis, they pointed to this same issue. “We cannot touch the bodies,” a Sikh leader said. “We are supposed to wash the bodies, show the family members how, give them the opportunity to love their loved ones one last time.” This has been the greatest loss for so many. One death after another, thousands of loved ones gone. And none of them tended to the way they should have been at the end.
“I keep thinking about all those nurses who find themselves doing the work for us,” said a bishop. “Sitting with dying strangers, walking them through their fear, witnessing their last words. They were not trained to catch so many people in their final moments. This is the work we are supposed to be doing, but we can’t. We are not allowed. And all those nurses are exhausted.”
The pain in his voice was palpable. He wanted to be of service, but he is in his seventies. He was locked indoors instead.
We need to be able to say goodbye. We need to touch, to feel, to connect. This is the greatest lesson I have learned through this pandemic. People are more important than money. Community is more important than travel. Although I knew this to be true before, I know it more now.
Near the end of my meeting with the religious leaders, I asked them a question. Each of them was deeply immersed in their own communities, and most of their time was spent attending funerals, caring for the family members left behind (almost all of it from a distance):
“What is it like for you to be around death so much these days?”
They all smiled. Like the elderly grandparents they have always seemed to be to me. My youth apparently a pleasure for them to engage with. One of them finally answered.
“Being with death makes you wise.”
The others nodded in agreement. Despite religious differences, this statement was one that they all shared. Death makes us wise.
But when we are not prepared for it, when we have not practiced being with it for a lifetime, death can rip you apart. Which is why religious traditions are supposed to be there to help us. Which is why we need to have opportunities—ritual, virtual, or otherwise—to say goodbye.