Death has increasingly not been given its proper due in our modern, technological age, particularly during the going on two-year pandemic. People have not been able to grieve the loss of loved ones properly as funerals have been placed under limited capacity by health regulations, only just recently loosened but still not up to pre-COVID levels. That makes All Saints Day Nov. 2 and the month of prayer for the dead that follows all the more important this year. Photo by Michael Swan

Dealing with grief in changing world

  • October 28, 2021

As restaurants, theatres and stadiums open up again, and as daily COVID case counts dwindle across most of the country, the Canadian Grief Alliance estimates that as many as 4.5 million of us are grieving one or more of nearly half-a-million deaths we have experienced in the last 20 months, nearly 29,000 of them directly from COVID.

For most, there was little chance to say goodbye to loved ones who died. Funerals were strictly limited by health regulations designed to curb the spread of COVID, with only the closest family members able to attend any kind of service. Even today, with loosened restrictions, capacity levels at funerals are nowhere near what they were prior to the pandemic. In the Archdiocese of Toronto, distancing regulations mean funerals are at about 25-per-cent capacity.

“Most of those deaths have been out of sight. Family members weren’t allowed to be there. We didn’t have funerals or rituals that we normally would have,” said King’s University College professor of thanatology Darcy Harris. “You are touched by death, but at the same time you are not. You’re touched by the loss of a loved one, but you weren’t there to do the vigil or be with them in their final moments.”

The alliance calls it a “shadow pandemic” of grief.

Which means that this year’s All Souls Day (Nov. 2) and the month of prayers for the dead that follows is never more needed.

“There’s a need for grief support that hasn’t been seen before in Canada,” Harris said. “For people who are Catholic, there are rituals that do bring comfort and do provide meaning to events. … To come together and recognize that I’m not just alone in this grief — that there are others here and I am in the presence of God, even as my loved one is gone. And to make sense of that.”

But theology professor David Deane worries that Catholics might not be able to make sense of it. He believes Catholics have lost a clear sense of what death and dying really mean. Catholics once had “a sense of reality as encompassing the afterlife, as encompassing life as a journey in a particular direction,” he said. But in a consumerist, capitalist and technologically-driven culture, none of that Catholic talk about the beatific vision, a good death or the journey to Heaven computes.

“Our lack of focus on death, our loss of the ability to understand death in coherently Catholic ways, robs us of our capacity to see reality for what it is,” Deane said. “It also makes us — to use Marx’s terms — lackeys and lickspittles of capitalism.”

Capitalism, as experienced on or at the mall, teaches us that the point of life is to project our personal power and status through the things and experiences we can buy. We build up our consumer selves while we are young, working and earning. The part of our lives spent growing older, frailer and more vulnerable and then finally dying is just the leftover bit of life that has no point in a culture shaped by capitalism.

“So we get our old people and put them as far away as possible. We sequester them, because they are signs that our modern, technological idea that we can fix everything with technology — they disprove that. They say, ‘No, age and suffering and death can’t be cured by technology,’ ” said Deane, an Atlantic School of Theology professor. “Their witness to that scares us, so we take them off our TV screens and we take them off our laptops and our YouTube.”

Living as if there were no death is dangerous, because it divorces us from a larger reality. The so-called realists among us believe that the real consists solely of the here and now, and that what’s real is just the narrow sliver of reality we can experience while we are alive.

“Thinking about the notion of eternity and the notion of reality as more than can be commodified, as more than can be categorized into the scientific, capitalist structures of the here and now, that can really liberate us,” Deane said.

Capitalism and medical technology drive our modern ways of denying death, said Harris.

“Once penicillin was discovered and we started having curative surgeries, we really went from a more existential, philosophical view of life to one that was very scientifically and medically oriented,” she said. “Capitalism does have some play in this, quite a bit, because we value people who are functional. We value people who are producing and who are not taking resources. There’s an attitude about that.”

Putting names into an urn by the altar or writing them in a book of the dead, to be prayed over throughout November, won’t change the world. But it might change our relationship with the world.

“What has been absent (during COVID) is the ability to perform ritual. Rituals really attach meaning to difficult events. The death of a loved one is certainly a very difficult experience made even more so by conditions of COVID,” said Harris. “If you weren’t able to have a real funeral or celebrate a funeral Mass, maybe this might be a time when  you actually can acknowledge the grief, now that we’re able to come together more — to actually have a ritual that provides a sense of reflection and meaning that just wasn’t possible during the height of the pandemic.”

“There’s an absolute reservoir of opportunities to do radical things around All Souls,” said Deane. “Simply to contemplate and to think unthinkable thoughts.”

For Deane All Souls is closely paralleled by Easter.

“In the same way that we take things like the Resurrection and Easter, and we say now that the goal is to try to let Easter bleed into our daily lives, so too with All Souls,” said Deane. “So too we have to realize the nature of reality, the nature of what we’re here for, the nature of the good and the nature of human vulnerability.”

The Canadian Grief Alliance doesn’t think Canadians should have to face this mountain of grief alone. One recent U.S. study of 831 adults who lost a close relative to COVID-19 found 66 per cent were suffering a level of grief that could be described as “dysfunctional,” leaving them unable to perform everyday tasks, at risk of drug and alcohol abuse and sometimes considering suicide.

The alliance’s lobbying for federal government support for grieving Canadians produced a commitment to public education on grief in the 2021 Throne Speech, but no actual funding commitment.

“We don’t know what that looks like yet, but it’s an important first step,” said Virtual Hospice executive director and Canadian Grief Alliance spokesperson Shelly Cory.

Whatever happens with the government commitment, Catholics will find support in their parishes. For Deane, All Souls is a chance to say no to a shallow, artificial life filled with plastic goods and digital images engineered to soothe away our real sorrows and fears.

“All Souls gives us an opportunity to experience some of that rebellion and to realize in all of its forms that reality isn’t this plastic, capitalist world that you’re living in. Reality is more than this,” he said.

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