Funeral services are a rite of passage that provide mourners a place to express the many feelings that accompany the loss of a loved one. But the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent restrictions on large gatherings have changed — and in some cases prevented — these rituals.
Kathy Slencak is one of the many people who have lost a loved one in 2020. Her mother, Jean Slencak, died of cancer while living at a nursing home in Grove City, Pa. Kathy counts herself lucky to have been able to visit her mother in person alongside her sister in the days leading up to Jean’s death, though dressed in full personal protective equipment.
Kathy’s other three siblings and their children had to say goodbye over the phone or via video chat. When Jean passed on Aug. 21, it soon became clear that a traditional funeral service wouldn’t be possible. The children who lived out of state would have to quarantine for two weeks and the local Catholic parish wasn’t holding mass at the time.
Instead, Kathy and her sister filled out paperwork at the funeral home and spent time editing their mother’s obituary.
“Obviously we had lots of texts and phone calls but we didn't have visits,” she said. “It was just very difficult. Very sad and lonely.”
That isolated feeling is a distinctly different experience compared to the death of Kathy’s father Steve in 2000. “Literally two hours later [after he died], our neighbors were bringing food and flowers,” she said. “We saw how rewarding having a service was.”
The Slencaks had a full mass, luncheon and several gatherings at home to memorialize Steve. According to Kathy, for two days, there was a nonstop line of people at her father’s wake waiting to pay their respects. Steve Slencak was a teacher and coach at a local school.
But Jean Slencak’s mass, wake and luncheon hasn’t come to pass. Kathy thinks her mother would have understood the complication created by the pandemic. She’s grateful that a priest was able to administer last rites to Jean in her final days, dressed in full PPE.
The Slencaks have found other ways to memorialize their mother in the months since she died; they encouraged donations in Jean’s name to the Grove City Food Bank and The Grove City Community Library.
“My mom, raising five kids, I'm sure she made a thousand trips to that library,” Kathy said. Wendy Riggi, a technology services librarian at the Grove City Library, said more than $3,500 was donated in Jean’s honor which helped the library buy children’s books and WiFi hot spots.
The library had frozen spending when the pandemic arrived in Pennsylvania over concerns about their budget. Riggi said the donations in Jean’s name were welcome dollars.
“That made me so happy and gave me such satisfaction. I know my mom would have been so proud,” Kathy said.
Another goodbye came in the form of a Christmas card. Kathy said her family would send her mother a newsletter-style update about what the children and grandchildren were up to each Christmas. This year, Kathy sent one last letter to the nursing home staff.
“I said, ‘Our parents gave us the gift of family, and I want to honor my mother’s memory this year [by] sharing her memory with you,’” she said. Kathy noted that her mother was close with staff members at her nursing home.
It’s been four months since Jean died, and now Kathy isn’t sure a delayed funeral service is in the cards.
“I think about all of the people this year that died naturally and the 300,000 people that have died from [COVID-19] so far. I’m not sure that all of us can have services next year,” she said. “We’ve been healing and grieving in different ways.”
Jean Slencak hoped to have her remains scattered at the farm in Saxonburg where she spent her childhood. The Slencaks will follow their mother’s dying wish when they eventually can gather together to say goodbye.