Tommie Farrell currently serves as 1st Counselor in the Abilene Texas Stake. He has served as ward mission leader, elders quorum president, and bishop. Favorite callings of his past have been Primary teacher, temple ordinance worker in the Lubbock Texas Temple, and as a scoutmaster just prior to his current calling. He has been married to Karen Farrell for 28 years and they have four fantastic children at ages 26, 20, 17 and 13 and they have been blessed and excited to have received their first grandchild to the family. Tommie has been a physician for 22 years with 17 years of these dedicated completely to the field of Hospice and Palliative Medicine where he gets to care for patients and families with critical illness and end-of-life care.
“The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.” (Psalm 116:3)
I am a Hospice and Palliative Medicine Physician. I spend most of my days with a singular professional goal: To help relieve suffering.
I know that sometimes I can accomplish this when I ease symptoms or distress in a person experiencing the effects of illness. Sometimes I cannot relieve the suffering present in a person’s life. This is especially true when the core to that suffering comes from emotional, spiritual, or social aspects of their life and illness. In these situations, there are two other things that can be done. I can attempt to help in their journey to find meaning in their suffering. And, if in a moment that cannot be relieved and no meaning is in sight, I can just be present.
The experience of families who have had a loved one die of COVID-19 has been especially unique. Death is never an experience without some suffering for the family, but the circumstances of this disease have led to some especially difficult aspects that most do not have to endure.
As I write this, I am cognizant that presenting this conversation has risk to trigger difficult emotions for us, especially if you have experienced any loss during the pandemic. Let me declare openly here that my intent is for us to be better at how we support the grief of those who have experienced this tragedy in their life. There are millions of people grieving across the globe from the deaths caused by this virus and we have the responsibility to help. Why? Because it is so central to our covenants as Latter-Day Saints:
“…now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” (Mosiah 18:8-9)
These are the words Alma used as part of the promise that is made at the time of baptism. Hopefully we also live these words as we minister to each other. I hope to share some specific aspects to help us do this much better with those who experienced death during the pandemic.
I also want to be intentional in this article to not add to any of the divide that has occurred from this topic. I am not writing this from any political or scientific point of view. My point of view is solely on those who have lost loved ones and what they are experiencing from the words and stories that they have shared with me and my colleagues in the job that we do.
The Unique Nature of COVID-19 Bereavement
What is unique about the mourning experience of those who lost someone during the pandemic? Many things that I will outline below, each with explanations that can give someone who desire to comfort better perspective needed to support the loss more effectively.
First, the aspect of isolation. This pervasive quality of the pandemic affects many aspects of the grieving process. For some they were separated for most if not for the entire illness prior to the death. Imagine the feeling of helplessness that can occur when you are not there to support the people you love. Then after the death, for many, the grieving process has been done in isolation. Many years ago, my wife and I had a child die. I remember the first Sunday we went to church after his death. It was hard, but we were surrounded by people that cared about us and wanted to give us hugs and shed tears with us.
Those having death during the past few years, in most settings, were deprived from the same experience. The circle of support was much smaller. And then for others the regulations regarding COVID in some areas deprived persons from the rituals that have been normalized to help us through the early days of grief. This included some funerals having restricted attendance and family members not feeling free to travel to pay their last respects.
I attended one such funeral early in the pandemic. I had plans to stay in the parking lot and only step in for a moment to offer some words from the pulpit so that I did not take a seat away from any particularly close friends or family members. Due to the restrictions my friend had only one son at the funeral and all the other family members had to look on via zoom. I went in and poured out all the love I could to that family, but I am certain the boundaries of technology limited how well that was felt.
Overwhelming Reminders of Loss
The next aspect of COVID-19 bereavement that is unique to survivors is how omnipresent the reminders of their loss are.
Though there has been a slowdown recently on all the talk about the pandemic. COVID-19 has been on our lips almost daily now for literally years. Daily news reports, social media posts and conversations abound. There is not the same safe zone to be alone and not reminded of your loss if you had someone you love die of COVID-19.
Even visually there were constant reminders of the disease as the whole world became masked. For one widower I know she took months before she finally decided she needed to change her cell phone. It was a dramatic personal reminder of the loss of her husband as she was not able to make it up to the hospital to see him and her last moments with him were on that screen.
Judgement Not Consolation
Finally, and likely the most profound impact of COVID-19 loss, is how poorly those grieving have been treated. As is most human cruelty, not all of this was intentional. However, the nature of this illness and how quickly it became a political and moral hotbed changed the way most of us spoke about the disease. No matter your point of view on the science of the disease, consider what it would be like to have someone find out that your spouse had died and the first thing they asked was “Were they vaccinated?” before hearing, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” The stigma of COVID death is severe. Instead of feeling consolation, some are feeling judgment. The judgment felt can come from a multitude of directions as the information that swirls about this illness and the way the numbers are filtered through individual belief leads to the person experiencing the loss risking being further isolated no matter the circumstances of the death. If their loved one was older, they may be dismissed as this being the “normal expectation” of who would die from COVID. If their loved one was vaccinated or young, the bereaved could find themselves being confronted with a philosophical lecture about the disease and validity of treatments, again, instead of just receiving the support they need to feel from one human to another.
Now another new experience some of the families I know are experiencing is for those dying in the aftermath of the disease. Some of my patients survived their infection only to be weakened in their reserves and die several months later from other pre-existing conditions. I have felt great inner turmoil when someone asks, “So what did they put on the death certificate?” That is not a question we typically ask a grieving person and is a by-product of the current society focused more on what the disease represents to them more than thinking about the person who has just lost a loved one.
What does this lead to for those who have experienced death during the pandemic? For some, they have navigated their way through this already. But some are still struggling with what is called a disenfranchised grief. This means the grief of the individual doesn’t “jive” with society’s attitude towards that grief response. Many of these individuals are grieving more alone than they should be. They are feeling alone among their peers and friends who do not understand what they are experiencing and why they are reacting the way they are. For many they can find no other outlet except self-blame. If their experience is not fitting society, they assume they did or are doing something wrong. This is a terrible place to be.
Choosing To Be Peacemakers
First, let’s be softer in our approaches to every person. When we let a single point of view about the pandemic rule our conversation, we never know who we could be hurting. I do not think it is the nature of any human to be cruel. For the most part the hurts we cause are unintentional. However, as those choosing to be peacemakers, let’s start by being careful that we don’t post, tweet, state, or testify of points of views knowing that something that is an opinion for us could be a major trial for another.
Next, when we are with someone who is grieving a loss during this time, do everything we can to let them know they are not alone and not to blame. You do not need to know anything fancier than that to be a good friend. To “mourn with those that mourn,” you need to do just that: mourn with them. Share your sorrow for their loss without any other personal agenda. Let all your comments be for them. If they are sad, be sad with them and never tell them they should not be sad. There is no age, pre-existing health state, or set of beliefs they held that should make it “O.K.” We don’t get to decide if “they lived a long enough life.”
If they are in a moment where they are counting their blessings, count the blessings with them. If they are angry at things being said by others in world, let them know that their perspective is valid and help them realize you are on their side no matter what beliefs exist out there about this disease.
You can do this no matter your personal feelings about the science or beliefs surrounding any aspect of COVID-19. Again, our Savior is the great example for us. From the same Psalm that I started this article:
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:15)
When He healed, He never judged. When “a woman having an issue of blood twelve years” (Luke 8:43) touched his hem and was healed he did not spend time finding out what the doctors she had “spent all her living” had said. Instead, he focused on her faith. Consider the story from John 9:2-3:
“And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be manifest in him.”
And the most profound example, when he was with those grieving the loss of Lazarus, he spoke words of comfort and “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)
The Savior and His Atonement Remain the ultimate answer.
“For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.” (Psalm 116:8)
“Watch With Me”
I started my message describing my job. I shared that when suffering cannot be relieved then there are only two other responses left. To help a person find meaning and just be with them until that meaning comes. I say it that way because we can’t provide meaning for another. If you ever try to answer questions like “Why did this happen?” and “Why didn’t God answer my prayers?” you will fail. I say this and I want to acknowledge there may be an occasion that someone grieving has been praying for a specific answer to come to them and the Holy Ghost may use another human to be the one who says the words vocally. But I would say if you went prepared with your own scriptural / doctrinal point of view to set someone’s grief straight, you are likely doing that without that same blessing from the Spirit. Each person grieving can find that meaning from their Savior. The way they receive that message will be very individual. We can point them to our Savior.
When the Savior went to the garden of Gethsemane, there was no way that Peter, James, and John could relieve the suffering the Savior was about to endure, but the Savior brought them with him to “watch with me.” (Matthew 26:38) We can watch with a person who is working through their grief. We can say, “I don’t know what you are going through. I don’t know why God had this happen in your life. But, I am here. I believe in our Savior. I know you did not do anything to deserve this. And I will be here to wait on our Savior together.”