One of the cruelest realities for the most severe victims of the COVID-19 pandemic remains that the quarantine forced by the virus prevents friends or loved ones from visiting the infected while under care. With hospitals and hospices under lockdown for everyone except patients and health professionals, the social distancing rules even apply to the dying.
Unable to visit or wait at the bedside with their dying loves ones, relatives and friends often must sit their vigils and say their final goodbyes via online video chat through social media platforms such as FaceTime, Zoom or Skype. New statements from Rutgers University representatives explore how those long distance goodbyes fail to give mourners a sense of closure.
With grieving relatives unable to visit the dying during COVID-19 restrictions, live video service … [+]
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Preventing a dying patient’s loved ones from bidding farewell in person is far from an act cruelty by hospitals and doctors. With a pandemic at work, allowing visitors to visit patients with the Coronavirus threatens healthy people and violates the social distancing rules America is using to slow infections. While not every terminal patient in a given hospital is close to death due to the virus, the ever-present threat of COVID-19 infection looms over everyone in any medical treatment environment.
Rutgers experts Stuart Charmé and Omar Dewachi stepped forward in a recent report to explain how the absence of physical closeness and goodbyes via social media offers little closure or comfort to the bereaved.
“Losing a loved one is painful,” Stuart Charmé says. “Being unable to say goodbye in the manner you planned adds to the agony. It’s a cold COVID-19 reality that he can speak to both as a scholar and a bereaved family member.”
The Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Rutgers University-Camden mourned the loss of his wife’s mother and father within days of one another — his mother-in-law to Parkinson’s complications and his father-in-law to COVID-19. Charmé believes it’s possible the father-in-law contracted Coronavirus making daily visits to his dying wife’s bedside — further demonstrating the dangers of visiting hospitals and care centers.
“One of the things that was very clear in my wife’s vision of the end of her mother’s life was that we would be able to gather together in person to tell her how much she is loved and say goodbye,” Charmé explains.
Instead of visiting in person, Charmé’s wife and daughters made do with the difficult new healthy of a FaceTime visit.
“By the time we realized it was time to do this, my mother-in-law was already unconscious. I wasn’t sure about what we were doing. If we were there in person, we would have been able to touch her hand and kiss her forehead. But it was still surprisingly touching. This felt like as good a substitute as we were going to get, and we were able to express the emotions we would have expressed in person.”
Different cultures and religions confront death in ways that could heighten exporsure to … [+]
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Though Christian and Jewish traditions call for close proximity with the dead to help those left behind confront their loss, Charmé insists the current grieving ritual via social media is not something that can be avoided or easily forgotten.
“You have to face it,” he explains. “Being in the presence of the person who has died and their casket is the reality of death. Past traditions want you to experience that and then give you a set of rituals to enable you to integrate the loss into your life.”
Omar Dewachi, Associate Professor of Medical anthropology with Rutgers New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Sciences, said suspicion of inequitable medical treatment could lead devout religious sects and immigrant groups to fear hospitals and clinics. They could then flee the possibility of dying alone and avoid COVID-19 testing to keep loved ones home.
The professor believes social distancing rules in such cases could be disregarded, citing cases in West Africa during the Ebola virus crisis where death rites such as holding and even kissing the body spread the hemorrhagic fever.
“Many people were not reporting health problems or Ebola-like symptoms, fearing people would come in, take that body and they would never see that person again,” Dewachi explains. “There were a lot of people who believed not only will they not have closure, but that the dead would not have closure.”
A physician in Iraq who teaches courses on the history of epidemics, Dewachi urges community members, religious leaders and funeral homes to come up with safe alternatives.
“In Muslim communities, you have to wash the body and wrap it in a piece of cloth before loved ones come together to bring the body to burial, which has to be fast. People will be very worried that the soul will not be rested if the burial is delayed or if a person is temporarily buried with other bodies.”
With no visitors allowed in hospitals during the Coronavirus crisis, some patients die without their … [+]
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Dewachi believes the loss of death rituals and reliance on social media technology heightens grief.
“One of the things death does to the survivors is it isolates them because their loss exceeds the loss of others. They feel alone, raw and vulnerable. These rituals try to redirect some of that isolation.”
Currently, many families opt for temporary, online video versions of farewell gatherings to tide everyone over until shelter-in-place orders lift and a proper memorial can take place.
“The alternative seems to be missing one major purpose of the ritual,” Charmé says. “That’s to be literally surrounded by friends and relatives, to feel their arms holding you and supporting you as you move through the mourning process.”