101°F
weather icon Clear

Coronavirus pandemic has changed the ways we mourn

Updated April 20, 2020 - 8:45 am

Sam Lieberman knew everybody, from senators to barbers. But when he died April 3 at age 58, nobody attended his memorial service.

Stay-at-home orders and a state prohibition against large gatherings prevented people from attending an in-person memorial. And while hundreds watched an online service for Lieberman, who served on the Nevada Board of Regents and was active in state Democratic politics, the solitary cemetery service was extraordinary for someone so well-known and respected.

It’s a cruel irony of the coronavirus pandemic that the virus not only steals our loved ones, but also the familiar and comforting rituals that help us mourn their passing.

However, clergy, counselors and funeral directors say that remembering loved ones still can be meaningful if people focus not on what they’ve always done, but on what they have to do for now.

Unexpected realities

The last few weeks have required jarring changes to traditional mourning rituals.

The Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas has suspended funeral Masses indefinitely. Monsignor Gregory Gordon, pastor of St. Anne Catholic Church, said the dead are being buried with a graveside service, and families are given the opportunity to schedule a memorial Mass later.

Prayers for the dead are offered during livestreamed Masses — public Masses also have been suspended indefinitely — and some families have streamed graveside services. “Everybody seems really understanding,” Gordon said, though these extraordinary measures are departures from Catholic tradition.

“We have taken advantage of multiple options for remembrance,” including livestreaming memorial services, videoconferencing and using social media to create “virtual celebrations of life,” said Celena DiLullo, president of Palm Mortuaries. “We’re just trying to accommodate (families) the best way we can.”

Kraft-Sussman Funeral and Cremation Services also offers streaming of services, according to owner Laura Sussman, who said about half of her clientele are Jewish. She said some mourners are using videoconferencing to pray for the deceased during the traditional period following burial known as sitting shiva.

Many families are delaying a service, Sussman said, opting for immediate burial or cremation and scheduling a memorial service for later. “We’ve had a number where we do a burial and nobody goes, not even a spouse. They say, ‘I’m going to do something when we can be together with my family.’ ”

It’s understandable but sad, she said. The person who died may have had “a full, rich life and (has) affected hundreds, if not thousands of people in a positive way, and nobody can gather together to celebrate that person’s life.”

The nature of the pandemic also can complicate or worsen grief. Cheryl Johnston, a social worker at Nathan Adelson Hospice, cited the example of an elderly couple in which the husband is hospitalized for COVID-19.

“The wife can’t go along because she’s also in a high-risk category. You face survivor guilt, you face caregiver guilt. ‘Did I bring it home? Was I the cause of it? Could I have done something different?’ So all these factors come into play.”

“And you have to remember that just being in a pandemic is traumatic,” she said. “So you have grief on top of trauma.”

The suspension of traditional funerals and ceremonies is “changing how we mourn, absolutely,” Johnston said.

Funerals “provide all of the elements of ritual for us,” she said. “They confirm the reality that someone has died, and they provide a means of (doing so) in a structured way. Funerals validate the social importance of a loss, because you have other mourners. So when that’s taken away, what we have to do is find a new meaning and new rituals to allow us to grieve, because you’re going to grieve no matter what. Grief is simply recognizing a loss.”

But Michelle Paul, director of The Practice community mental health training clinic at UNLV said grief is highly personal.

“There’s no proper way or right way to grieve. I would caution people to avoid thinking that they’ve been robbed of the proper way to do this, because if we are approaching this rigidly … I think we set the stage for further grief.”

Differences and opportunities

“It is different,” said Rabbi Yocheved Mintz of Congregation P’nai Tikvah. “And, in fact, there are silver linings to the difference.” For example, more than 600 people participated in Sam Lieberman’s online memorial service — many more than would have been accommodated in person.

“Sure, we wanted to embrace one another. We wanted to cry on each other’s shoulder,” Mintz said. “And we will. We’ll welcome that day when it’s here. But this is all we can do now.”

Jonathan Lieberman, Sam’s brother, said, “For somebody who was so social and so omnipresent in the community, the fact that no one could publicly mourn his passing was strange.” But having so many people attend virtually “was healing in a way,” he said. “It was as good as it could have been in the circumstances.

“When things get back to normal, whenever that is, we’ll probably have some type of gathering here in Las Vegas for his Las Vegas friends and then bury his ashes in (the family plot) in Minneapolis.”

Saying goodbye

Raquel Sanchez lost her stepfather, Ronald Sanchez Rivera, 66, a Navy veteran and longtime registered nurse, on April 2. The family chose cremation now and will hold a gathering in California later.

“We’re doing a celebration of life with all his family and friends and church when this coronavirus thing is over. But we have no idea when that’s going to be,” Sanchez said.

“The last day he was alive, we set up a Zoom call with his family. It was two hours long, and I sat on the ground next to Ron’s bed. They each took turns talking to Ron, telling him how they loved him and sharing memories with the rest of the family. It was very much like a digital vigil,” she said.

“My father passed away in 2001, and people brought food over. The church came to help me and my mom. It’s just not like that now. We wanted (them) to be here, but we did the best we could with the technology.”

Be flexible

Mintz encourages those who have lost loved ones to find different ways to express their grief. She and others who knew Sam Lieberman are assembling a virtual “book of life” containing images and remembrances. Other ways to mark someone’s death could be as simple as cooking a special meal, planting a tree or telling stories to one another about a loved one’s life.

While it’s not the same as being there, technology can provide “an element of processing and acknowledging the reality of the loss,” Johnston said. “It’s important that people do not allow themselves to be further isolated by the loss.”

“I think we’re going to have to lean in (on) the flexibility of things being different,” Paul said. “None of that takes away from the value of the loved one’s loss or the pain and heartbreak of those left behind.”

Contact John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Entertainment Videos
Kats hangs at Mayfair Supper Club as Bellagio reopens
Las Vegas Review-Journal man-about-town columnist John Katsilometes visits The Mayfair Supper Club at the Bellagio on the Strip in Las Vegas on the first night after reopening Thursday, June 4, 2020. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas performers adapt to pandemic restrictions - Video
The coronavirus pandemic has forced creative people in Las Vegas, a city that thrives on live performance, to adapt to new or changed ways to entertain. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas woman brings Blue Angel to life - Video
When Las Vegas shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, Victoria Hogan created the Blue Angel costume and performance, emulating the statue locals know and love in order to connect with others in a time when connection isn’t as possible. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
‘Hamilton’ postponed as Smith Center remains dark indefinitely - VIDEO
The hit musical 'Hamilton' was supposed to run from September through October at The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons rides a bicycle on the Strip with Kats
Las Vegas resident and ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons rides down the Strip with his wife Gilligan Stillwater GIbbons and Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John Katsilometes Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons rides a bicycle on the Las Vegas Strip with Kats - Video
Las Vegas resident and ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons rides down the Strip with his wife, Gilligan Stillwater Gibbons, and Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John Katsilometes on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Ex-WWE star Shad Gaspard found dead on beach - Video
Shad Gaspard, 39, the former WWE wrestler, was found dead Wednesday morning on the shoreline of Venice Beach in California. Gaspard went missing over the weekend. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Buffets won’t reopen soon, but they may return eventually - VIDEO
In a Tuesday earnings call, Frank Fertitta III, CEO of Station Casinos parent company Red Rock Resorts, said buffets won’t be among the amenities included in the early stages of the resorts’ reopenings. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
'Hamilton' to debut on Disney+ in July - Video
The film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popular musical was originally set for theatrical release in October. The musical’s director, Tommy Kail, shot three live performances featuring the original Broadway cast. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Little Richard dead at 87 - VIDEO
Little Richard, the pioneer and rock 'n' roll originator, died on Saturday, May 9. His son, Danny Penniman, confirmed the news but the cause of death is unknown. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jerry Stiller, actor and comedian, dies at 92 - VIDEO
Jerry Stiller's son, actor and director Ben Stiller, announced his father's death via Twitter. Jerry Stiller became widely known with a recurring role on "Seinfeld" as Frank Costanza, George's hot-headed father. He also starred on "King of Queens." (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Wolfgang Puck's Players Locker opens in Downtown Summerlin along with others - VIDEO
Under the governor's orders a few restaurants were able to open their dining rooms in Downtown Summerlin Saturday, May 9. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nicolas Cage to portray Joe Exotic in ‘Tiger King’ TV adaption - VIDEO
Nicolas Cage is headed to television to take on the role of Joe Exotic, the iconic character from the Netflix docuseries "Tiger King." (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Quarantined! 'The Ghost Adventures' miniseries by Zak Bagans - VIDEO
The four-part miniseries “Ghost Adventures: Quarantine” by Zak Bagans will debut in June on the Travel Channel. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
10 facts about Cinco de Mayo - VIDEO
The holiday celebrates the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Mexico began the holiday in 1862, but does not recognize it nationally anymore. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Kristin Cavallari has already filed for divorce - VIDEO
Kristin Cavallari, the "Very Cavallari" star, announced she and her husband, former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler, have separated after seven years of marriage and 10 years together. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Brad Pitt portrays Dr. Anthony Fauci on ‘Saturday Night Live’ - VIDEO
"Saturday Night Live’ aired their second socially distanced episode of the COVID-19 pandemic on April 25. The episode’s cold open featured actor Brad Pitt portraying Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Brian Dennehy, 'Tommy Boy' and 'First Blood' star, dies at 81 - VIDEO
Actor Brian Dennehy died Wednesday in New Haven, Connecticut. Dennehy's acting career spanned more than four decades, working in television, film and theater. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bishop Gorman 'Guys and Dolls' virtual performance
Bishop Gorman's virtual opening of "Guys and Dolls." (Bishop Gorman High School)
John Prine, country-folk singer, dies at 73 - VIDEO
John Prine died due to complications caused by COVID-19 at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee on April 7. The singer-songwriter is counted as one the favorite artists by the likes of Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Caesars furloughing about 90% of US workers
The furloughs come amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has prompted all U.S. commercial casinos to temporarily shut their doors.
Bill Withers, soul legend and 'Lean on Me' singer, dead at 81 - VIDEO
Bill Withers' family said he died of heart complications on Monday in Los Angeles. Withers was a three-time Grammy winner. His other major hits include “Ain’t No Sunshine" and “Lovely Day.” (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vegas KatsWalk: From the Mandalay Bay to Excalibur - VIDEO
Review-Journal columnist John Katsilometes walks and talks along the Las Vegas Strip, from Mandalay Bay to Excalibur. (John Katsilometes and Kevin Cannon / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Make Ivan Grant's Quarantini - VIDEO
Ivan Grant, a flair bartender at Long Bar at The D Las Vegas, makes his Quarantini. (Ivan Grant)
Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger dies from coronavirus - VIDEO
According to Variety, 52-year-old frontman and songwriter Adam Schlesinger has died, following a short battle with the respiratory illness, coronavirus. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
KATS WALK: A walking tour on south Las Vegas Strip – VIDEO
RJ columnist John Katsiometes takes a walking tour of the south end of the Las Vegas Strip. (John Katsiometes and Kevin Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tiger King character has Las Vegas connection - VIDEO
Entertainment reporter John Katsilometes talks about the popular "Tiger King" and Jeff Lowe, a central figure in the Netflix documentary phenomenon who wanted to do business with the last Las Vegas Strip entertainer to use wild tigers in his act. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Coranavirus victim Howard Berman playing the harmonica in April 2014 - VIDEO
Howard Berman, 66, playing the harmonica at a jam session in April 2014. Berman, who was active in the Las Vegas music community, died on March 24, 2020, from COVID-19. (Diana Andriola)
Boarded-up businesses in the Arts District add some color - VIDEO
Businesses in the Arts District have commissioned local artists to paint murals on the boards covering their doors and windows. When the boards are removed, they will be auctioned off to raise money for those affected by the coronavirus shutdowns. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Sold-out Electric Daisy Carnival still scheduled for May - VIDEO
In a post on his social media platforms, festival founder Pasquale Rotella confirmed that EDC remains scheduled for May 15-17 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway despite coronavirus concerns that have sideline scads of other live music events. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST
Nevada will expand testing, tracing with federal money

Nevada will commit roughly $221 million in mostly federal money through 2021 to rebuilding state protective equipment stockpiles, expanding COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, and preparing a mass vaccination program.