The pandemic, grief, and bitter irony of six feet

Losing loved ones is hard enough, but the coronavirus is making mourning all the harder


In the wake of a tragedy, people seek solace in each other, as mourning is communal. Yet, the natural tendency to grieve together continues to be eviscerated by the coronavirus pandemic.

As the death toll in the United States surpasses 80,000, many more find themselves grieving at a distance, as health professionals have advised maintaining at least six feet of space between people to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

“If we would have had a regular funeral, we would have had standing-room only,” said Gary Axelbank, whose 91-year-old mother, Muriel “Mickey” Axelbank, died of complications from the virus on April 4.

Funeral homes have had to drastically reduce the number of people allowed inside. For Mickey, only eight people were allowed inside. But even with such a small group, there were still necessary precautionary measures.

“We had to go in one at a time to pay our final respects,” Gary said. “I can’t even go and hug my brother.”

At the gravesite, Gary and those family members in attendance stood six feet apart, and the significance of that particular measurement is not lost on him.


A new way to connect

While they couldn’t have as many people in-person as they would have had normally, Gary adapted with the online videoconferencing program du jour — Zoom. He believes as many as 50 people signed into the app for the funeral.

The service was followed by a new kind of shiva, the week-long period in the Jewish tradition wherein, under normal circumstances, friends and family visit the home of those in mourning. Such a tradition is impossible right now, but Zoom — and programs like it — offers a way to carry on and connect with loved ones.

“This particular person was so about family and so about people,” Gary said. “Literally people from all over the world were able to come and pay their respects.”

While the pandemic has forced people to physically distance themselves, it has engendered a renewed sense of community.

“We were together in a way that we could be,” said Heidi Schwartz, whose father Alfred died from complications related to COVID-19 on April 8.

Like Gary, Heidi held a virtual shiva where people came and paid their respects in their own time. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked. Heidi could share in the memory of her father with others close to him.


Complicated grief

The loss of her father was compounded by everything the pandemic has brought to bear on people’s lives. It wasn’t unusual for Heidi to talk on the phone with her father five to six times a day.

They’d talk about anything and everything. At 93, Alfred had lived a long, full life, from serving in World War II to being honored on the diamond in front of a roaring crowd at Yankee Stadium in 2018. An avid news consumer, snacking enthusiast and reader of murder-mystery novels, Alfred had a restless curiosity.

“Every time the phone rings, I still think it’s him,” Heidi said.

In the time between the advent of the coronavirus pandemic in the city and her father’s death, Heidi wasn’t able to visit him at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale where he lived.

“What I can’t move on from personally is that he was by himself,” Heidi said.

This particular experience of death and mourning is known as “complicated grief,” according to Mosaic Mental Health executive director Donna Demetri Friedman, because of how the coronavirus pandemic has upended the ways in which people grieve.

“These restrictions on being able to do the kinds of things that we typically do for — and with — one another to get through it are not happening,” Friedman said. “People are learning new ways of doing this. Any loss is being experienced just so differently than ever before.”

Friedman sees technology as not quite a replacement, but a useful tool for connection in lieu of physically congregating.

“In the past we’ve been ambivalent about technology,” Friedman said. “The telephone, particularly, and being able to hear someone’s voice” is healing.

The ways in which life has been reshaped by this crisis in the months since it began is going to have a lasting impact, especially with so much uncertainty surrounding when exactly life again will start to have some semblance of normalcy.

“I’m bracing myself for what is going to be a tsunami of mental health needs,” Friedman said.

In the interim, the experience of the current moment is changing by the day. And for those who have lost loved ones to the virus that causes COVID-19, the feeling of loss can be particularly acute in a way that gives rise to new insights.

Much of Heidi’s life for the last six years was taken up by caring for her father. Her mother died in 2014, and after that, she immediately focused on her father, who was then in his late 80s.

“I never really grieved for my mother properly,” Heidi said. “I feel like I’ve lost both parents at the same time.”

Gary Axelbank, Muriel "Mickey" Axelbank, Alfred Schwartz, Heidi Schwartz, Mosaic Mental Health, COVID-19, coronavirus, Donna Demetri Friedman, Julius Constantine Motal