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Prolonging Grief: Connecticut Citizens Deal With Death In The Age Of Coronavirus

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Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Paul Bass at his home in New Haven on June 8. He lost his brother to ALS in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 has brought death much closer to everyday life for many in Connecticut and around the world. But it’s also had a big impact on how we memorialize and mourn the dead.

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It’s the “new normal” for Debra Halvorsen.

Before the pandemic hit, she and her sister Sue Cirella routinely visited their mom at the Lord Chamberlain nursing home in Stratford four to five times a week.

“My sister and I loved each other,” Halvorsen said.

“We thought we would see it through together with Mom and then have time to do some traveling together and some of the things that we were really just too busy to do.”

If there’s anything Halvorsen has learned from what she’s been through since March, it’s to not wait for “someday” to do things with someone you love.

Sue Cirella died suddenly on March 10, one day before the World Health Organization deemed the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Cirella’s death was unrelated to COVID-19, but the coronavirus would wreak havoc on Halvorsen’s plans to memorialize her sister. It would also impact communication with her mother, Betty Ann Belden.

“They had already closed down the nursing homes at that time, so they let me come in to talk with her,” Halvorsen said.

She then told Belden that her daughter had died. 

“I didn’t want her wondering what had happened to Sue.”

Halvorsen didn’t know it would be one of her final visits to the nursing home. 

Credit Courtesy Debra Halvorsen
Debra Halvorsen, Betty Ann Belden and Sue Cirella.


Paul Bass, editor of the New Haven Independent, lost his older brother Robert on March 15.

“I loved my brother,” Bass said. “He gave up a lot growing up to take care of me because our mother died when we were very little.”

Bass said he’s been prepared for Robert’s death for a couple of years. His brother had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

But he wasn’t exactly prepared for what would happen afterward.

He knew he wanted to do right by Robert and give him a proper Jewish send-off, which requires a prompt burial.

“Under normal circumstances, we would’ve gathered indoors first and had probably a couple hundred people,” Bass said.

‘Because You Need The 10’

The burial would take place at a cemetery in a Valhalla, New York, which lies in Westchester County.

It happened to be around the time when, in the same county, one of the world’s most devastating outbreaks of COVID-19 was beginning to spread.

“I thought the hardest part was figuring out whether you can have 10 people get together -- even at a 6-foot distance -- to bury someone according to Jewish tradition because you need the 10,” Bass said. “You need the 10 adults to say the kaddish prayer.”

That prayer is an integral part of Jewish mourning rituals. It must be recited daily throughout the stages of mourning.

“The kaddish prayer doesn’t mention death,” said Bass. It’s his belief that these traditions are in place not so much for the dead, but for the living.

“It mentions lines that you have the hardest time believing in when someone close to you dies, which is that God exists, so that you praise God -- or that things work out the way they should -- and the reason for that is that 10 people are around you reinforcing that when they say ‘Amen’ and they’re telling you that there’s a reason to keep going even though it’s hard.”  

Credit Tyler Russell / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Paul Bass looks at photos of his brother Robert, whom he lost to ALS in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Religious Adaptation In A Pandemic

Traditional customs surrounding death in all religions are under attack in the age of COVID-19.

Islam, like Judaism, prescribes that the dead should be buried as soon as possible after they die. Burial is preceded by the washing and shrouding of the body.

But as Imam Refai Arefin of the Berlin Mosque points out, that’s been compromised by coronavirus.

“The problem with that is if you do that on a very short time scale,” Arefin said, “you’re increasing the risk of exposure to the people who may be performing the washing and the shrouding because the process itself requires them to be in very close contact with the deceased.”

Arefin and his partners in the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford are telling congregants to contact only funeral homes recommended by them -- places where those preparing the body for a Muslim burial are outfitted with proper personal protective equipment.

With PPE being hard to come by during this pandemic, they’ve modified their custom.

“In that context, what we’ve requested is that the individuals who are doing the washing should actually skip the process of washing the body and substitute it with the ceremonial process of Tayammum, in which dirt is utilized rather than water,” Arefin said.

He sees this kind of adaptation as a positive -- proof that the religion isn’t so rigid -- and that adjustments can be made to protect the living while accommodating the dead.

‘A Million Neurotic Precautions’

Paul Bass went through with his brother’s burial in March.

“We just decided in the end to take a million neurotic precautions, down to having a rag for when we grab the shovel to put the dirt on the grave to cover the hands, to have that hand sanitizer right after, to avoid touching other people when you want to hug or get real close,” Bass said.

Even though Bass didn’t get to bury his brother in total accordance with Jewish tradition, he found something positive in the experience. He’s inspired by adaptive measures afforded to him so he could move forward after Robert’s death.

“While you lose something by not being able to follow traditional ritual,” Bass said, “you gain something about the deeper, timeless human instinct to work together through difficult times.”

Trying Not To ‘Pathologize’ The Pandemic

Bass’s way of looking at his experience with Robert’s death is on par with an approach Dr. John Woodall might recommend.

“I don’t want to pathologize everything that’s going on right now -- I actually think it’s a very fertile time for personal transformation, transformation in families in our community, the nation, and in the world if we view it through the right lens,” Woodall said.

Woodall has a lot of experience with loss. He now works in Newtown. Before that, he worked with former Ugandan child soldiers. He’s also traveled to other trauma zones, like post-9/11 New York City, to lend his expertise. 

He said people tend to treat grief as something that’s unhealthy -- something you get over -- and that’s a missed opportunity.

“Grief is a form of love. We only grieve things that we love, so if we focus on the loss, then that’s the experience of grief,” Woodall said.

“But with a slight change of focus, we look at the thing about our loved one that was lovable and what was it that made that person lovable.”

He said something that’s come up a lot lately is how an adult should address grief with a child who loses a parent or grandparent.

Woodall recommends telling a story about the deceased person and finding a way to connect the child’s best qualities to the person left behind.

“‘Jimmy’ -- let’s say -- ‘you know when you just did that with your sister, that was the kind of kindness that your grandfather used to show all the time, so that really has a huge value in the family,’” Woodall said hypothetically. “‘I’m just so grateful that you’re keeping that alive in the family.’”

It’s an approach to grief with a feeling of love rather than loss.

‘No Hugs, No Kisses’

For Debra Halvorsen, the unfolding global pandemic was a distraction from where she wanted to be -- grieving the loss of a sister and caring for her elderly mother.

She said that as the most uncertain, early pandemic days wore on, she was surprised at how well her mother was doing while isolated in her Stratford nursing home. After all, the mother was used to seeing one of her daughters at least four times a week.

“I spoke with her on the phone as often as I could,” Halvorsen said. “I was able to do a video chat and actually a window visit with her. She looked good.”

Halvorsen first heard about her mother’s illness on a Friday in April.

“I called the next day,” Halvorsen said. “It had been two weeks since they had moved her roommate, who had COVID-19, out of her room.”

That Sunday, Halvorsen got a phone call at 4:30 a.m. She was told that if she wanted to, she could see her mother for 15 minutes.

When she got to the nursing home, she put on gloves, a mask and a hospital johnny over her clothes.

“I was told to not touch anything -- no hugs, no kisses,” Halvorsen said. “But I could hold her hand and talk to her.”

“And I did.”

Halvorsen’s mother, Betty Ann Belden, died two days later. She was 88.

It was a second devastating loss for Debra Halvorsen, nearly 50 days after she lost her sister.

On top of that, because she’d been exposed to COVID-19, she had to self-quarantine in her room for a couple of weeks.

“It comes over me and kind of abates a little and then comes over again. I have a feeling that once things settle down -- if they do -- that it’s going to really prolong the grief process -- this isolation and the virus situation,” Halvorsen said.

With memorials delayed in many traditions, those of us who have lost a loved one may find that sadness returns down the road.

Halvorsen and her family were finally able to hold a memorial event for Betty Ann Belden during Memorial Day weekend, almost a month after her April 28 passing.

It took place -- in a sign of the times -- via Zoom.

Frankie Graziano is the host of The Wheelhouse, focusing on how local and national politics impact the people of Connecticut.

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