Rabbi Hillel Fox of North Shore University Hospital leads a...

Rabbi Hillel Fox of North Shore University Hospital leads a prayer with staff.  Credit: Rabbi Hillel Fox

About 60 people were on a video conference call one recent night, learning together how to grieve in the age of COVID-19.

Unable to comfort one another with the soothing warmth of embraces and kisses — and with some participants using an unfamiliar technology — friends and relatives of the deceased nonetheless soon began sharing stories, readings, poems and prayers that brought back memories of better times.

One mourner broke out into an old tune, crooning the school song of the high school where he and his late pal had befriended one another in the pre-Zoom era, said Maribeth McKeever, who helped organize the virtual memorial service. 

“There was laughter, tears,” said McKeever, director of bereavement for Good Shepherd hospice in Farmingdale. "We find that people, once they get comfortable with the mode that it’s happening, they’re true and genuine with their grief. And I think their need to grieve and memorialize are met.”

At a time when restrictions on social life imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus have upended familiar traditions, grieving families are learning new ways to say goodbye.

Families face a series of hurdles that have, at least temporarily, changed the way they prepare to part with parents, grandparents, children and friends — those who died from the virus and others whose passings were attributed to other causes.

It often starts at hospitals, where typically only one or two people are allowed to sit bedside during a loved one's final hours. After that, social distancing rules make cherished rituals such as wakes, sitting shiva and funerals all but impossible. Grave sites are selected via virtual cemetery tours.

But whether services are postponed or held using FaceTime or Zoom, bereavement specialists say time-honored forms of grieving are still vital to people seeking closure and healing.

“The way I look at it, chaplaincy and pastoral care is really high-touch, connecting emotionally and spiritually, and now we can synthesize the high-touch with the high-tech for the benefit for the families and the patients, and even the [hospital] staff,” said Rabbi Hillel Fox, director of chaplaincy services at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, part of the Northwell Health network.

“The response we're getting is very uplifting," he said. "I don’t think it’s a substitute, but I do think it has its place and it does serve a very positive function.”

Like tele-medicine, virtual counseling was still only in the embryonic stage before COVID-19 arrived in the United States this year, but now has become an indispensable tool for therapists to help clients while maintaining safe distances from them.

Fox said he had discussed the concept — which he has dubbed "Call a Chap" — with colleagues about six months ago, but had never implemented it. “It’s a new opportunity or a new experience that we had talked about,” he said. 

Merrick grief counselor Michael Miller said he had used video conferencing for family members who were out of town on business trips, but those instances were rare. Now he can't do without it.

But counseling bereaved families via video or other electronic means presents certain challenges, Miller said. Some clients find it difficult to create a private space in a crowded home where they can speak about sensitive, confidential topics, he said, adding the nature of the conversation may also be different because clients are not in his office.

“Conducting a phone session where you can’t see a person doesn’t allow you to pick up nonverbal cues,” Miller said. “Sometimes it’s hard to pick up a sincerity and warmth.”

One of the biggest risk factors facing grieving families — even before coronavirus — is isolation from other people. Counselors tell families to stay in touch with loved ones, and encourage friends to keep tabs on neighbors and acquaintances.

“I’m urging everyone — loved ones, friends, family — anyone who is experiencing a loss, stay in touch with them," said McKeever of Good Shepherd, part of Catholic Health Services. "Don’t underestimate that five-minute phone call you make in the morning.”

In the absence of funerals, counselors are finding other ways to help mourners process grief.

They encourage families and friends to upload photos on social media, write journals describing their loss and make donations to favorite causes.

Thinking of birthday parties celebrated with caravans of cars driving through suburban neighborhoods, Miller suggests drive-by visits — or releasing balloons with a personal message attached to it.

At Stony Brook University Hospital, staff prepare "legacy kits," including bereavement cards and other personal mementos. 

“It’s figuring out what’s important for you in this moment of grief, how do you want to remember your loved one, how can you uphold their memories, whether it’s through pictures or writing about them," said Dr. Adam Gonzalez, a clinical psychologist and director of behavioral health at Stony Brook. “The act of processing that grief ... is important to help yourself get around that loss.”

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