“What do we do next?”

It is the question families often ask me, a hospital chaplain, once their loved one has died in the hospital. Some of the patients are older, some are younger, some die suddenly, others after a long illness. And each reaction of family members who are present during the death of a loved one is different. Some cry, some yell, some run out of the room, and some just stare with a blank look on their face. But after a loved one has died and that first strong wave of intense shock and grief has passed, leaving them exhausted and bewildered, I am almost always asked this same question: “What do we do next?”

Honoring the lives of loved ones after they have died has never been easy. While serving as a hospital chaplain, some families I encounter have funerals already planned in detail, others have never given it a thought.  And sometimes I see families recount how the way funerals were done in their family’s past, and either out of convenience or pressure, feel they must honor the loved one who has died the exact same way.

Now that we are living through the COVID-19 pandemic which continues to claim the lives of at least 1,000 Americans a day, individuals are experiencing grief from the loss of loved ones more frequently than perhaps they have experienced before. And with state and local authorities placing restrictions on how people can gather to pay their respects to lost loved ones, not only are people unable to memorialize the death of loved ones as in the past, many are having to re-think their plans based on their local and state ordinances.

They must search for new ways to process the loss of losing a loved one that capture the spirit of the one who died and the relationship they had with their survivor. They may take some cues from those who have not viewed traditional funeral services as the only or primary way to remember and honor the departed.

Eight months after my mother died from cancer, I remember my father, sister, and I spreading my late mother’s ashes in a waterfall which meant a lot to her while she was alive. While the process was something we could not do without tears, there was a sense of intimacy, sacredness, and serenity, as we spread her ashes. Unlike my mother’s public memorial service which was beautiful and formal, spreading my mother’s ashes allowed us to feel and express our emotions without having to feel to compose ourselves or act as funeral service hosts for the other attendees the way we did for her memorial service.

But no matter if a loved one is going to be buried or cremated or if there will be a public viewing, there are several options we can consider with a small, intimate group of family or friends, or even individually to remember the life of someone who meant a lot to us and to help us express our grief.

These include:

  • Writing a letter to our lost loved ones expressing our feelings towards them (even if they are feelings of hurt or disappointment).
  • Sending up a sky lantern during the night in their honor.
  • Hosting a gathering of selected friends to share stories about their relationship with that person over a meal.
  • Planning a fundraiser or raising money for a cause that was important to your love one.
  • Sharing photos and home movies of your loved one on Zoom or Facebook Live.
  • Going on a memorial walk, bicycle ride, or drive in their memory.
  • Creating artwork or engaging in craft using their clothing to make memorials which you can keep or share with other loved ones.
  • Reading scripture, listening to music, and spending time in nature alone to reflect on their life.

Additionally, while our cultural and family traditions often warrant us to remember and honor the one who died based on what has been done in the past, learning how different cultures honor and remember their dead can help you explore some other ideas as well.

In my career of chaplaincy working with patients and loved ones when it comes to grief, it is my belief that our society, especially that of our Western American culture, still needs to learn how not only how to see death as a taboo subject, but also how to grieve as a state of emotional and spiritual being which we should not feel ashamed expressing or feeling.

Certainly, after we lose a loved one, being asked or asking ourselves the question, “What do I do next?” can seem overwhelming, we should not feel as if we have to know right away; nor should we feel confined to the way our family or society expects us to honor our departed loved ones.

“The reality is that you will grieve forever, writes Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. “You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”

Above all, it is important to remember that every relationship we’ve had with a lost loved one is different than what that person had with someone else, so we should not feel guilty if we have a desire to honor their life differently than others do—especially in a pandemic when we can’t honor their life the way we might have done in the past.

Because just as the relationship with that person was special to us, we can honor their life in a way which is special to us as well.