The restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus is causing families to delay funeral services and the grieving process. Staff at Brooking-Smith Funeral Home can no longer meet with families in person to plan services, which must be delayed indefinitely. Credit: Courtesy of James Fernald

When Anne Gabbianelli’s father died suddenly in a car accident in 1987, she and her family were scattered across New England. Within eight hours, they were in each other’s arms providing comfort and solace to each other in a time of grief.

Those were different times.

Gabbianelli’s 68-year-old brother died suddenly on March 28 of an apparent heart attack, but due to restrictions in place because of the pandemic her family still has been unable to meet in person to mourn their loss.

“We all mourn so for that embrace each day now,” Gabbianelli said. “It’s beyond heartbreaking we can’t grieve together in each other’s arms.”

The Gabbianellis and countless others are having to suspend funeral services indefinitely as officials impose bans on large gatherings in an attempt to lessen the community spread of the coronavirus.

The latest restrictions enacted by the governor ban even a private gathering of a few immediate family members. No one knows how long the restrictions will be in place.

And for some — even those who haven’t lost a loved one — the uncertainty during this time is the hardest part.

Jennifer Hubler, a grief counselor with Northern Light Acadia Hospital, said that as a society we are grieving the loss of the way we were living before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“We’re all feeling like our life stopped as we knew it,” she said. “The loss of a loved one now compounds the grief that already exists.”

Hubler stressed that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and the process is different for each individual. Grieving highlights the importance of connection and Hubler encourages people to use the internet now to make and maintain those relationships.

Traditionally, the process of healing after a loved one’s death begins by making arrangements for burial or cremation, according to Jim Fernald, funeral director at Brookings-Smith Funeral Home in Bangor and past president of the Maine Funeral Directors Association.

“That’s the time the reality of a loved one’s death sets in,” he said. “This is when we go over what should go in the obituary and talk about the person’s life. We also go over the death certificate information and what type of a service they’d like to have to honor their loved one.”

Spending time with the body or the cremains is a way for many family members and close friends to say goodbye — especially if they were not able to be with the loved one when they died.

“One of the best ways to accept a death is through the viewing process so they can heal and move on from the loss,” Fernald said.

Hubler urges those who were unable to be at the side of their loved ones when they died, to write down what they would have said if they’d been able to be there.

The ban on funeral gatherings is interfering with some religious traditions. Jewish funerals, for example, usually take place within one day following the death. The services often are followed by a gathering at the mourner’s family home, which marks the beginning of shiva. Mourners generally stay there and receive guests to help them pray and reflect upon their loss for seven days.

“The COVID-19 outbreak has drastically altered Jewish mourning practices nationally, in Israel and in Bangor, said Rabbi Bill Siemers of Beth Israel, the city’s conservative synagogue. “In Judaism, care of the deceased is a communal responsibility. When a congregant dies, he or she is washed, dressed, carried and buried by friends. Following burial the mourners are cared for and fed in their homes by the congregation. The novel coronavirus outbreak has disabled all of this.”

Now, Siemers said his congregation must heavily rely on professionals with protective gear to prepare the bodies. Friends can’t visit mourners or the grave where the body is buried.

“This is an unprecedented disruption in Jewish mourning ritual, at least in the memories of just about all Jewish clergy,” Simers said.

Even though Christian and other denominations can delay services, doing so creates a “healing vacuum,” according to the Rev. Stan Moody, pastor emeritus of Columbia Street Baptist Church in Bangor.

“Families need to be brought together to find hope in the reshuffling that occurs when a key family member is gone,” he said. “Lack of closure leaves a family with an empty piece with little or no sense of whether that empty piece will be filled, how it will be filled, or by whom.”

“Delaying funerals for a specific date has been traditional for some time in such circumstances, but delaying them indefinitely creates a healing vacuum that needs to be filled by churches in a new way. Being so recently into this situation, however, has left us behind, and we need to step up in support of our congregants with new, creative options.”

Technology is allowing families and friends to comfort each other and remember and honor loved ones.

Gabbianelli was online for “a Zoom-gal’s gathering” Saturday night when she learned her brother was on his way to the hospital.

“Sadly, things transpired so fast and the Zoom conference soon turned into an Annie’s Friends support group via Facebook Messenger,” she said. “It has been so helpful — albeit virtual — to know I have been embraced in a time void of genuine human contact at a most critical time of need.”

While the Gabbianelli family and many other families are anxious for the virus restrictions to be lifted so services and burial may begin again, others may be tempted to skip a funeral altogether because it seems too daunting to wait.

But Alan Wolfelt, a grief counselor and founder of the Center for Loss & Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, warned against that, even though it may seem like “an easier and more practical choice” in the moment.

In an article posted on the center’s website, he said that decision could be a lasting mistake for families and other mourners.

“When no ceremony is held, I have learned from many mourners that in the months and years after the death, they often feel a surreal sense that the death didn’t really happen,” he said. “They commonly feel lonely and unsupported, and they also tend to feel regret over not having adequately honored the life of the person who died.”