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Grief has always gone beyond death and dying and has many guises, amplified during the Covid-19 situation. In New Zealand and around the world entire populations have been unable to be with friends and families, colleagues and community. Not able to hold a hand and sometimes not able to lend a hand either. 

Redundancy, job loss, the end of relationships, as well as a loss of what has been familiar can lead to mourning and grief – as Australian author Sally Cant says; “it’s a little word that packs a big punch”. 

The anguished stories of families and individuals unable to hold funeral services and tangi, or even to be with their loved one at the end of life, are beginning to emerge. Some are tragic beyond belief, brutal in their context, but these are extraordinary times and there is compassion and a level of understanding too. 

So, why is a farewell ceremony important; by not having one, what is it we’ve missed? Can we recreate meaning in memorial? 

The ritual of a funeral is critical because it acknowledges that this person mattered, that they lived and that they’ve died, it begins a process, it gives permission to experience the loss collectively. A funeral service marks a life, its moments – good and not so – and is pivotal to the grieving process of those who mourn.

However, in the absence of community newspapers we may have missed the death altogether. That in itself could lead to a family’s sense of isolation and to a community of friends and colleagues’ collective guilt when they discover the loss.

When someone died during lockdown their body went to a direct cremation, a direct burial with perhaps a funeral director and in some circumstances one family member present, or a long-term embalm, for a funeral service in the future. This was challenging for everyone involved and while the grief couldn’t be delayed, all public celebration of life was on hold. And it’s possible this will have a lasting effect on the bereaved.

Planning a memorial service for a loved one, once the alert level reduces is a way to honour their life and enable extended family and friends to share the memories, music, refreshments and reunion that these gatherings create. 

Far from revisiting grief, a memorial service provides a way through it and forward. It provides an opportunity to pay tribute and to give meaning and to celebrate life. It’s an essential step because reflection and remembering provides a step towards healing.