By Suzanne Blake
When Lucy Hill learned her grandmother Diane Ulrich had gone to the hospital in mid-March 2020, she didn’t expect the worst.
Ulrich wasn’t feeling well, but the Hill family could never have imagined that the strong matriarch of the family would end up dying in the hospital. Until it happened, and suddenly they were placed in the impossible situation of planning a funeral amid a burgeoning pandemic.
It was after Hill, a UNC-Chapel Hill student, had returned home to Mooresville from college. COVID-19 cases were soaring and UNC had extended its spring break before eventually turning all classes remote when Hill heard the news.
Looking up at her mother Meredith, Hill thought to herself how strong it was that even as she told her gently that her grandmother had passed, her mother did not cry.
The planning process
The family had to wait what felt like an endless period of time to hear back about if and how they could plan a funeral as the hospital had to ensure Ulrich did not die from COVID-19.
It was determined she had not. But the virus still dramatically impacted the way those who knew Ulrich could celebrate her life.
“It just feels incomplete,” Hill said. “There’s just a disconnect, and it kind of doesn’t feel real almost.”
Ulrich was a devout Catholic who had helped build the Saint Elizabeth’s of Hungary Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. So, even with the looming safety concerns of holding an in-person funeral, Hill said they needed to have a concrete ceremony with a priest.
Only 10 family members could attend the event. Hill was one of them, but the pandemic’s restrictions made it so her brothers couldn’t mourn their grandmother alongside her.
To Hill, the 10 people were not enough to demonstrate Ulrich’s legacy.
“I wish COVID didn’t happen because she really did deserve a lot more people being there,” Hill said. “She touched so many people’s lives, and 10 people were not representative of the impact she made.”
Other family members and friends could only watch the service broadcasted over Facebook.
Grieving families are being put into the difficult situation of navigating how to mourn their loved ones throughout the pandemic, said Stephen Mitchell, the funeral director of Walker’s Funeral Home in Chapel Hill.
Many families don’t want to risk their friends coming out to a formal funeral, and many people aren’t showing up when the services do take place, he said.
There have been more requests for outdoor ceremonies, and families often bring their own streaming equipment.
In the rare case that the families in grief want to have excessively large gatherings that do not heed COVID-19 warnings, Stephen has to force himself to have that difficult conversation. No one wants to hear that their mother or father’s life can’t be celebrated properly.
“That discussion slowly turns to look, as much as we hate to say this, you do have to realize that we are in the middle of a pandemic,” Mitchell said. “There are a lot of things that we can’t control.”
Mitchell knows from his line of work that the virtual events aren’t the same. There’s something to be said for coming together and receiving a hug.
When people inevitably do hug each other at in-person funerals, Mitchell said it’s not his place to say anything. The funeral home encourages everyone to wear masks, but if people feel safe to handshake or hug, which is a natural reaction to grief at a funeral, that’s on them, he said.
Still, many are bypassing in-person funerals altogether.
UNC senior Laura Traugot remembers her grandmother Marilyn Liden as an even-tempered, kind woman who she could always count on for the best back rub. Traugot took Liden to get Wendy’s before the spring break known as the last “before” COVID-19 time.
In July, Liden was having trouble breathing. Scans revealed the worst: lung cancer. By late August, Liden was in hospice. A few days later, she died. Traugot’s last goodbye for Liden was recorded over her phone.
For the Traugot family, an in-person funeral wasn’t an option.
“For us, it wasn’t even a question,” Traugot said.
Many of Liden’s friends were in Illinois. Because of Traugot’s parents’ high-risk conditions, Traugot didn’t want people traveling for the event or risk of COVID-19 exposure.
She used her UNC Zoom account to commemorate Liden’s life in the small way they could. They put together a slideshow of Liden’s life, full of quotes from people who knew her and songs she would have liked.
Laying on her bed after the Zoom funeral, hearing how her grandmother had talked about Traugot and her brother, Traugot cried for two hours. Maybe it would have been different if someone had been there to hug her.
With Zoom, you log on and off, minimizing the closure and support we often receive from attending a funeral with other people who knew the person. Traugot knows that if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, they would have had a proper ceremony.
“It’s difficult for these families because of what they’re going through, and then you throw into the mix, they can’t do what they really want to do to honor their loved one because everybody’s hands are tied,” Mitchell said. “That just brings the emotions to it to a whole new level. It’s things that I’ve never seen in 30 plus years of doing this.”
People knew Eileen Boone as playful and sweet, but she also acted like a queen. UNC senior Taylor Edmonds recalls playing nail salon with her grandmother.
After Boone had a stroke in early 2020, the family prepared their goodbyes. Miraculously, she took a turn for the better.
In the summer, Boone tested positive for COVID-19 after likely contracting the virus from her home nurse. The goodbyes were excruciatingly difficult. Edmonds’ mother said goodbye in full PPE gear while Edmonds had to say her last words over FaceTime.
Like many, the family could not have an immediate funeral to remember Boone’s life. Come October, they did host a small, outdoor “celebration of life.”
They made the difficult decision to choose this type of event over a virtual funeral because of how close-knit the family is; they needed that quality time together to commemorate Boone.
“It just felt like it wasn’t enough to do something online in terms of being able to support one another and just be with each other,” Edmonds said. “It just didn’t feel enough to celebrate everything that my grandmother was.”
No matter what type of event a family chooses to say goodbye to a loved one, the grieving process has been radically impacted. So many cannot seek solace in the comfort of their family’s support or the warmth from holding hands through the tears.
Traugot had to let herself grieve and be mad at the whole unimaginable situation of planning a Zoom funeral, two words that should never go together.
“Let yourself be mad at it, but let yourself grieve and do your best to recreate those close connections,” Traugot said.
Edited by Mikayla Goss