COVID leaves its mark on grieving process in Rainy River District

Staff Writer
Natali Tivuncic

As the first snow falls, it is hard to imagine that COVID-19 has had the world wrapped in its vortex for eight months. For some of us, the hardest adjustment was working from home. But for others, this year has been tougher than most even without the pandemic.

Experiencing the loss of a loved one is never easy, but funeral services and the gathering of friends and family usually provides support and closure. With public health officials stressing the importance of social distancing, a hug of support and a touch of compassion has become a lot to ask for.

Kim Jo Bliss lost her father Tony Bliss at the end of July. Not only was she and her family faced with the death of a loved one, but they also had to worry about funeral arrangements. She and her brother did not want to hold off on a service because they felt that they had to grieve their loss.

Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March, the Northwestern Health Unit reported 90 positive cases in the region. Although this is a relatively low number compared to other parts of Ontario, the effects of COVID-19 have been felt across the province, putting everything at a standstill and affecting more than we can imagine from local restaurants and hospitals to long-term care homes and funeral homes.

The Bliss family decided to hold a funeral service at Kim Jo’s farm, because of the limitations at the funeral homes. Although this was not their initial plan, Bliss said she felt luckier than most in such a difficult year.

“Although I wish my dad was here, we were really fortunate that we did get to honour him that day and have people there,” Bliss said. “There’s comfort in having your people with you.”

On a hot summer day, Bliss, her family and those in attendance said goodbye to her father with an outdoor service while following all public health precautions.

Bliss said even though they followed all the precautions, she could not stop worrying about a possible exposure to the virus during the outdoor service. However, Bliss said they were happy they went through with it.

“At least we’re not thinking, ‘well we have to still do this’,” Bliss said. “It was taken care of.”

Bliss fondly talks about how much her father loved watching his granddaughters play hockey, how he loved helping out on her farm and helping the community, his love for scratch lotto tickets, seeing his friends and the trail of cologne he left everywhere he went.

“I don’t think it’s only us that’s missing him. In a way that’s comforting, because he made an impact on other people too,” Bliss said.

Brad Carlson, manager at Green Funeral Homes in Fort Frances, said his business has been affected by the pandemic, mostly because of the restrictions on how many people can attend funeral services.

“I think families have been really negatively affected because at the beginning of the pandemic we were limited to only 10 people attending a funeral so families weren’t really able to celebrate their loved one’s life as they normally would,” Carlson said.

The Bliss family were not the only ones who had to navigate funeral arrangements amidst a pandemic.

Jack Elliott lost his wife, Norma Elliott, in September. They had been together for 51 years and had proposed to each other only five days after meeting. Elliott says this has been a difficult experience, never having had to make arrangements for a loved one, let alone his wife.

“With COVID-19, it was easier in some senses because there couldn’t be a funeral so there are arrangements that didn’t have to be made,” Elliott said. “But on the other hand if it hadn’t had been COVID I would’ve had more help around to make the arrangements.”

Elliott said one of his sons was not able to come to Rainy River because of COVID restrictions

While Elliott said they held a small funeral service, they wished to have a larger celebration of life with more family and friends, but this has been postponed until next summer when restrictions are hopefully lessened.

Elliott said not being able to celebrate Norma’s life did not give them proper closure.

He and Norma were supposed to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary last summer, but Norma had gotten sick and they were not able to go through with it. Elliott said her celebration of life will also be a celebration of their anniversary.

Like Tony, Norma was a prominent figure in the community, her “irrepressible spirit for not accepting the status quo,” said Elliott, followed her throughout her career and life.

Since early November, the restriction has been changed to allow 30 per cent of the building’s usual capacity. For Green Funeral Homes, this means they can now have 30 people in attendance during a service. Carlson said this will help families to celebrate their loved ones and grieve properly.

Jason Lilly, owner of the Northridge Funeral Home in Emo is adjusting to the new guidelines. Lilly said they have not had any direct related COVID cases in the funeral home because northwestern Ontario has been isolated from hot spots, but the precautions that are mandated by the province have limited the sizes of services, which has greatly reduced activity at the funeral home since March.

Due to these limitations, Lilly said that many families have chosen to hold a service at a later date or hold something private in their homes. Lilly says the minimal services that have been taking place are not necessarily healthy for the grieving process but it is what they have to work with.

“Funeral services lead to an opportunity for great transmission because of the grieving process there’s close contact which is a normal process with someone grieving. You hug them so that leaves a real opportunity for the spread of the virus,” Lilly said.

Northridge Funeral Home can now house a maximum of 50 people and are required to have one staff member present for every 10 people.

Although services have opened up capacity, Lilly and Carlson stress that protective precautions are still in place and people must wear masks and sanitize their hands.

“I’m hoping that we can get this pandemic behind us sooner than later and families can get back to celebrating their loved one’s life as they did before and not have those types of restrictions,” Carlson said.

As both homes continue to adjust and try to prepare for the future, Lilly said the hardest part continues to be having to tell families what they can and cannot do for the service.

“My main concern is that death comes to all of us and if you cannot have the proper service of gathering, or grieving process put in place, the grief lasts much longer,” Lilly added.

Bliss said that despite the circumstances, her father would have been touched by the support of the community.

“It was a bit overwhelming, but then we had so many messages of how my dad affected other people’s life,” Bliss said. “We knew he was special but we didn’t know other people felt that way too.”