Scarves, photos and memorials: Mourning rituals help people heal from the trauma of COVID-19

Social Worker Zelda Freitas, Coordinator of the Caregiving area of expertise at CREGÉS, says rituals help people deal with their grief
Social Worker Zelda Freitas, Coordinator of the Caregiving area of expertise at CREGÉS, says rituals help people deal with their grief

To remember those lost to COVID-19, residents in one Montreal district knitted colourful scarves and embroidered them with the names of their loved ones: Gisèle. Jean-Guy. Pauline. The scarves will be stitched together into a memorial for those who died in the pandemic.

The project is featured in a new guide as an example of a collective mourning ritual during an exceptional time. Produced with researchers from CIUSSS West-Central Montreal’s Centre for Research and Expertise in Social Gerontology, the guide says these rituals are an important step in helping the healing process during COVID-19.

Residents in one Montreal district knitted and embroidered scarves to honour their loved ones. Credit : Facebook, Je me souviens 2020
Residents in one Montreal district knitted and embroidered scarves to honour their loved ones. Credit : Facebook, Je me souviens 2020

From knitting projects to commemorative photo galleries at long-term care homes, collective acts of mourning let bereaved Montrealers come together “and give a meaning to the tragic deaths,” the guide’s authors write.

“Rituals are important for helping people in their grief. They symbolize the loss and help people cope,” says Social Worker Zelda Freitas, Coordinator of the Caregiving area of expertise at the centre (known by its French acronym, CREGÉS).

The 17-page guide, developed for the Montreal Public Health Department of CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-L’Île-de-Montréal, provides guidelines for anyone interested in holding a mourning event–-and explains the reasons why these events matter.

Montreal was the epicentre for the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada, with the virus claiming many lives in short order, the authors write. In long-term care homes, the virus spread like “an invisible and insidious enemy,” taking a devastating toll on residents, staff and families.

Many relatives couldn’t be present when their loved ones died, and were denied traditional rituals such as funerals. “It was practically impossible to say goodbye in a satisfying way,” the guide says.

Yet, failing to mourn properly can cause psychological distress, and the effects can emerge slowly, researchers say. Mourners can experience their most intense emotions three to six months after the death of a loved one. Those feelings can persist for up to 24 months, according to the guide.

“Historically, we talked about grief as time-limited,” says Ms. Freitas, a contributor to the guide along with Valérie Bourgeois-Guérin, university researcher, and Isabelle Van Pevenage, institutional researcher. “We know now that grief can go on and people experience that loss in various ways throughout their life.”

The guide provides examples of collective mourning rituals that can be beneficial. During the height of the pandemic, a non-profit group in Montreal projected nighttime images against the walls of hospitals, stores and other buildings. The illustrations carried messages of hope. “Soon, the sky will clear,” said one. “We are with you,” said another. Confined seniors were invited out onto their balconies to look.

In other cases, long-term care residences created commemorative spaces where photos and other artifacts were displayed to honour the victims of COVID-19. Some families left written anecdotes or personal family histories about their loved ones.

Healthcare staff faced difficulties of their own, the researchers found. In long-term care homes, staff “faced the situation, with courage, day after day.” Many of them suffered as residents succumbed to the virus, “losing people with whom they had built a bond over months and years.”

Says Ms. Freitas: “It’s well documented in research that healthcare providers also need to deal with the grief and loss they experience through their work.”

The guide, which included the participation of the caregiver support service L’Appui, says mourning rituals help people recognize their personal loss while feeling they belong to a larger group. And Montrealers need it, the authors say. “We should recognize the catastrophe and trauma experienced by Montrealers,” they write. During the peak of the pandemic, people in the city felt “sad, ashamed, worried, angry, powerless, hopeless.”

Montrealers have been through traumatic events before, however–-the ice storm and Polytechnique shootings, among others. They pulled through each time, the authors say. “Montrealers demonstrated their ability to face up to adversity in the past.” Whichever ritual they choose to help them through the coronavirus pandemic, the guide says, it’s important to do it together.

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