It’s been eight months since Vince Ricottilli and his sister, Angiolina Allaire, lost their father, Luigi.
Eight months without a wake. Eight months without a funeral. Eight months of private grieving during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Angiolina, the pain has been double. In May 2020, her 44-year-old husband, Marc-André, died in his sleep. She waited more than a year to hold Marc-André’s funeral, agonizingly making a list of which 10 people would be allowed to come and grieve. Marc-André’s sister in the United States wasn’t one of them because, at that time, the border was still closed.
“Even though none of them died from COVID, it still feels like COVID has stolen so much from us,” Angiolina says.
“That’s not even to talk about when my dad was in the hospital and there were restrictions on who could visit. His siblings couldn’t come to say goodbye, and a lot of them wanted to. Even when he was still living and in his end days, it affected his condition. It made it even worse. It made him even lonelier.”
COVID-19 has claimed more than 28,000 lives in Canada, some 600 in Ottawa alone. But, for the families and loved ones of the many thousands of others who have died during this time, it has also meant an epidemic of grief deferred.
“Our mother passed away seven years ago and I remember for an entire week people were stopping by to drop off food and expressing their sympathies,” Vince says. “You literally had a shoulder to cry on. With COVID, you get the outpouring of love and support from friends via text messages or phone calls or social media, but it’s not the same.
“There’s a brief moment when someone calls and offers their sympathies, and it’s done. There’s no fault in any of this. It’s just the way it is. People offer their condolences and then they move on.”
During the worst days of the lockdown, no gatherings of any sort could occur. Eventually the limit was raised to 10, then 50. Since summer, Ontario has had no limits on the size of indoor or outdoor funeral services provided physical distance can be maintained. A proof of vaccination isn’t needed to attend a funeral, service or visitation, but is required at any funeral-related social function.
Many families have begun again to plan funerals or memorial services, says John Laframboise, director of community relations with Kelly Funeral Homes.
“I think people were confused by their grief,” he said. “Our emotions give us the feeling of what we think we need to do to get past this and the restrictions put a damper on what is normal. Now that restrictions have been lifted, we’re finding an increase in families looking to have a second service beyond than that first private service. To have the opportunity to share stories, to say their goodbyes and to be better able to acknowledge and accept this loss,” Laframboise said.
“People are asking, ‘What is a significant date? How can we take this to the next level of significance? Is it an anniversary or a birthday? What is the special date that family from out of town are able to be there.’ ”
Even with the loosened restrictions and the opening of the border to Americans, many funerals remain on hold. And, though live-streaming and Zoom funerals are likely here to stay, they’re just not the same.
“We’re never going back to a Zoom-free world,” says Julie Ann Levett, program manager for the support network Bereaved Families of Ontario. “It’s here to stay. For years we’ve always had the problem of people fumbling with their phones or trying to connect with the granddaughter in England who couldn’t be there, and now we’ve just opened it up to say, ‘OK. Let’s do this properly.’
“People have found that Zoom is not that bad. Nobody wants to do it six hours a day. But there’s a whole laundry list of why it’s great. Even when things go back to normal, we’re keeping Zoom.”
And, yet, there is something lost by grieving virtually.
“You don’t have to go to the wake. You don’t have to go to the funeral. It’s just a quick message and it’s done. You move on,” Vince Ricottilli says.
And, as time passes between the death and the service, people forget. Or they think a social media condolence is enough. Or they are simply overwhelmed by the flood of funerals as restrictions have eased.
“My dad was very prominent in the Italian community,” Vince says. “You think that we’re going to have the funeral and there will be a significant turnout. But then I realize that, for a lot of people, it’s just slipped their mind or they’ve made their peace with it. I don’t think we’re going to have the same show of support.”
For Angiolina, making a shortlist of people who could attend her husband’s funeral was unbearably painful even though the 10-person limit was lifted just days before the service.
“It feels disrespectful to someone who wants to come and yet you’ve been unable to invite them. You feel guilt about it,” she says.
There’s also the practical matters of death that are made more difficult by the pandemic: the bureaucracy of death such as probating wills, preparing and selling property and dealing with estates.
What is lost by deferred grief? It’s important to realize that funerals are a time to mourn all our losses, not just the person whose funeral it is, Levett says.
“When we’re not able to go into our grief, to really experience it, to experience our sorrow, to have it witnessed by people. There’s a risk that we don’t do it and that comes out in depression, anxiety and anger — just an overall diminished mental health,” she says.
“And we have people coming to BFO who’ve had losses 10 years ago that they never really dealt with, and the dam is opening for them. It’s amazing. It’s really never too late(to grieve), but it’s better to do it sooner.”
That was what Angiolina Allaire experienced after the deaths of her husband and her father within nine months of each other. It made her relive the death of her mother.
“Even though her death happened seven years ago, it’s like I’m grieving her all over again. The longer the grief goes on for my husband and my dad, it’s like I’m still grieving my mom.”