Funerals over Zoom: how to grieve in the age of the coronavirus

Psychologists weigh in on how we can tackle grief head-on in an age of travel restrictions and social distancing

NEW CANAAN, CONNECTICUT- APRIL 11: A family takes part in shiva, a traditional Jewish time of mourning for the dead when friends and family gather, remotely on the zoom video application for an elderly relative who died of heart failure, April 11, 2020 in New Canaan, Connecticut. Because he died during the COVID-19 pandemic, family members were unable to say goodbye in the hospital or make plans for a funeral. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
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I attended a funeral this week.

Family members gathered from near and far. There were speeches, eulogies, a PowerPoint presentation filled with pictures of happy memories, and wistful anecdotes shared about time spent with the deceased. There was even a musical performance, courtesy of a spirited mother-in-law and her ukelele.

But there was one rather obvious point of difference for this funeral, held as it was in the age of the coronavirus: it all took place through a computer screen.

Zoom funerals can seem 'movie like', flat and a one-dimensional experience which can possibly further complicate grief

As the pandemic has charged across the globe, leaving a trail of incomprehensible change in its wake, grounding flights and closing borders, once straightforward actions are now impossible.

So, for instance, when a family member passes away in New Zealand (my husband's grandfather, in this instance), you simply cannot jump on a plane and rush home to grieve with family and help with funeral arrangements.

Instead, you grieve over WhatsApp messages, phone calls and video calls with family spread out across the world, and arrangements are made for a funeral to be held over our new lifeline: Zoom.

You gather at an ungodly hour to ensure family members in Auckland, New York and Dubai can all be present, and instead of a church or a funeral home, you sit on a couch in your pyjamas. As emotions run high, there is little else you can do but sit. It's strange, disconcerting and can easily feel as if it isn't really happening.

So is this something we need to come to terms with as the "new normal"? And how do we reconcile loss in isolation?

"Just as we are all now adapting to a new way of living, we also need to adapt to a new way of grieving," says Tanya Dharamshi, clinical director and psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai.

"Many will miss their chance at a final farewell and the chance to say a physical goodbye and this can cause feelings of frustration, helplessness and even anger."

Tanya Dharamshi, clinical director and psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre

Dharamshi says the "connection" component of a funeral allows people to learn to cope with bereavement, so it's difficult to come to terms with, without having that physical experience.

"Coping with the loss of a loved one can be extremely challenging and emotional at the best of times, but during the current pandemic, these feelings can only be exacerbated, particularly with the overwhelming feeling of isolation.

"Additionally, the thought that our loved ones may have passed in isolation is also difficult to cope with. [And] with the current physical-distancing measures, we are not able to connect physically, leaving many feeling extremely isolated and alone."

Dharamshi says, if not dealt with, these negative feelings can snowball into a period of "prolonged grief", which is "like a form of depression".

In order to avoid this, she says it's important to engage with and communicate with family and loved ones, ensuring regular check-ins with relatives or a simple chat with them to connect on other topics. It's also important to talk about the person who died, sharing memories and moments, and to be kind to yourself.

"Our ability to cope is being greatly tested. Varied coping mechanisms we would previously have relied upon to help us through such a stressful time are simply not possible, we have less physical support and contact with friends and family, much more ‘thinking’ time and fewer distractions to help take our mind off things for even short periods of time, which can help stop grief becoming all-consuming."

Dharamshi says therapeutic activities are key, now more than ever, to help cope with loss. Try reminiscing about happy memories to ensure your loved one is not forgotten, or try writing a letter to say goodbye. A grief journal, where you can spend 15 minutes expressing your emotions in a non-judgemental space is also a good option.

"Appreciate the unprecedented circumstances we are currently living in and acknowledge how you are managing to get through each day. Allow yourself time to feel the emotions and give yourself permission to go through the journey of grief – resist the urge to numb or remove the pain," she says.

The positive side of Zoom funerals 

However, there are potential advantages to attending funeral arrangements from afar. Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist at LightHouse Arabia, says some of their clients had reported that "being in their own home allowed them to access their grief more".

Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist at LightHouse Arabia

"Because they could cry without feeling self-conscious, they could also deeply connect with the speakers at the funeral because the ‘camera was zoomed in closely’ on their faces and they were not distracted by context and other people." She adds that they also note "that there is still a sense of connectedness experienced with many people gathered to pay their respects in one place".

LightHouse Arabia has seen an increase in grief services during the pandemic, as people experience both "primary and secondary losses".

This means more people with low moods and heightened anxiety, not only from loss – either of a loved one or of other losses caused by the pandemic – but also from residual stress. It has led to the introduction of new, free-of-charge support groups.

Afridi agrees that there is no substitute for in-person funerals, as ones held over Zoom calls can feel "'movie-like', flat and a one-dimensional experience, which can possibly further complicate grief". For that reason, she hopes they will only be relied upon during the pandemic.

"There is no substitute for real-life gatherings and being together in person in a time of loss. Seeing the person who has passed in real life, being with people in your sadness makes the event real and the grief process clearer in your heart and mind.

"However, these platforms provide a substitute in a time when being together is just not an option. I think the scary thought is, what if people just adopt this as a way of doing things in the future? It would further chip away at our humanity that is starting to get compromised by our over reliance on technology."