She walked to the front of the columbarium at the Denver cemetery, clasping her hands in front of her body. Behind her, the other mourners kept their distance from one another. Their expressions, including hers, were concealed by the masks partially covering their faces.
Susie Mannis Sigman was at Fort Logan National Cemetery on a Friday earlier this month to say a final farewell to her mother, Barbara Mannis, who had died unexpectedly the week before.
Sigman peered down at the iPad on the tripod in front of her, catching a glimpse of the faces of her siblings, children, nephews and nieces on the screen. There they were, with her, from their homes — watching livestreamed video via Zoom.
The coronavirus pandemic began its march across the country more than four months ago, and even though Sigman’s mother didn’t die from the COVID-19 respiratory disease, it prevented loved ones from joining her in Denver for the funeral.
Now, Sigman thought, she felt connected to them.
“If it had to be done this way because of the coronavirus circumstances that we are in, at least I had some companionship,” she recalled thinking at the time.
Grief, which already can be an isolating experience, has become an even more lonely act as people are forced to mourn without family and friends physically beside them. Yet the pandemic is pushing death into the forefront of society as nearly a thousand Coloradans have been lost to the new coronavirus and funerals are being altered or postponed because of the social-distancing measures implemented to stem COVID-19’s spread.
And it’s for this reason that mental health experts, religious leaders and others hope the pandemic will change how Americans approach grief, paving the way for people to talk more openly about the difficult emotions that come with losing loved ones.
“This communal experience that we are all going through at one level or another is forcing us to have conversations that we have not been willing to have in the past,” said Micki Burns, chief clinical officer of Judi’s House, a Denver organization that provides care to grieving children and their families.
The pandemic is causing people to experience many different forms of grief. Society is collectively grieving the loss of a way of life as people are ordered to stay home. Individuals also are confronting the loss of their jobs as measures put in place to slow the transmission of the coronavirus have taken a dire economic toll.
Then there are those who are facing the ultimate loss, as more than 75,000 Americans have died from the new coronavirus. Because of the contagious nature of the disease, most people who die during this historic period — either with or without COVID-19 — are doing so alone. Their loved ones are left to mourn on their own.
In all of this, Rabbi Rick Rheins said, is the loss of human connection.
“We gain strength from one another with our human physical contact,” said Rheins, senior rabbi at Denver’s Temple Sinai. He added, “We can express with a simple hug and a gesture of acknowledgement face to face volumes more than words are capable of. We miss that now.”
On the day of Mannis’ service, life outside the cemetery seemed to keep churning as it once did before the outbreak. Lines snaked around Starbucks and McDonald’s drive-thrus. Golfers were hitting balls down the fairway of a nearby course. But here, inside its gates, the pandemic has upended rituals humans have used for centuries to mourn their dead.
When Sigman and her four friends arrived at Fort Logan National Cemetery for the service, a pair of mourners sought to comfort one another with a hug — but such an act would break social distancing.
So they wrapped their arms around themselves instead.
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post
Susie Sigman of Denver participates in the remote memorial service for her mother Barbara Mannis at her home in Denver on Friday, May 1, 2020. The service was streamed to their family via Zoom.
“I’ll miss you every day”
In late April, Barbara Mannis began experiencing symptoms similar to COVID-19. Her body ached. She was fatigued. She had shortness of breath. The 83-year-old didn’t want to go to the hospital, so she scheduled a telehealth visit with her doctor.
Courtesy of the Mannis family
Then one day Mannis, who lived in Arizona, walked out to her car and found herself so out of breath that she had to sit down in the backseat. A neighbor saw her and suggested she call 911.
Soon she was on her way to the hospital.
Mannis was born on Feb. 4, 1937, in Cleveland, Ohio. After graduating from Shaker Heights High School, she attended the University of Michigan but left after one semester.
“She took a detour for love and married the love of her life, Burt,” the family wrote in her obituary. (She eventually went back to school and got a teaching degree from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.)
Barbara and Burt Mannis had three children: Michael Mannis, Judy Goldberg and Sigman. The family moved to Florida in 1976 and then to Arizona six years later.
Although they did not live in Denver, the Mannises were members of Temple Emanuel and every year they drove to Colorado for Rosh Hashanah. Because they formed a community here, Sigman said, the couple decided Fort Logan National Cemetery would be their final resting place. Burt Mannis died in 2019 at age 86.
At the hospital, doctors tested Mannis for COVID-19, but the results came back negative. She received a different diagnosis: leukemia.
Then, still in the hospital, Mannis had a heart attack.
Goldberg, who had traveled to Arizona to be with her mother, got a call in the middle of the night to come to the hospital. Once there, Sigman recalled, Goldberg called her siblings using FaceTime so they could see their mother one last time.
On the video, Mannis apologized to her children.
“I’ll miss you every day,” Sigman told her.
Half an hour later, Mannis died.
“It was horrible,” Sigman, 55, recalled. “It was such a strong, organic kind of feeling to know I’m about to lose my mother. Yet it’s a memory that I never want to lose.”
Screenshot by Jessica Seaman, The Denver Post
Clockwise from top left: Rabbi Josephi Black leads siblings Susie Mannis Sigman, Judy Goldburg and Michael Mannis in a remote memorial service held for their mother Barbara Mannis on May 1, 2020.
“Something we don’t have a language for”
On May 1, as the memorial service for Mannis began, Rabbi Joesph Black turned to her three adult children who were out of sight on the Zoom video and asked them to tear a piece of fabric or ribbon. The service at the cemetery had ended a few hours earlier and now the family, joined by friends and others in the community, gathered together from their individual homes via Zoom for the memorial.
Keriah — or tearing — is one of the rituals mourners participate in during a Jewish service.
The ritual, Black told those on the video stream, occurs because humans are “physical beings” who need to do something physical to express their grief.
It is symbolic, he said, of the tear in the family after the death of a loved one. And it reflects the change, he said, in Sigman’s and her siblings’ status.
Now they are mourners and the community must take care of them.
But how mourners are comforted is changing under social distancing. Instead of bringing food and visiting someone, casseroles are left at the doors of the bereaved. For many, including Sigman, the week-long mourning period in Judaism called shiva is taking place via video-conferencing.
Cemeteries and mortuaries are still seeing a steady of number of deaths during the pandemic, and at Seven Stones cemetery in Littleton there’s been an uptick in pre-planning for funerals, said Becky Holm, director of customer care.
But as funerals are limited to 10 people under social-distancing guidelines, many people are having loved ones cremated and waiting until later to hold celebration-of-life ceremonies. Others are going ahead with the ceremonies, but filming or livestreaming the services for those who can’t be there, she said.
“People are going to find a way to grieve the loss of their loved one no matter the parameters that are placed on them,” Holm said.
Before the outbreak, the fast-paced nature of life was such that it was easy to get pulled away from the rituals that come after someone dies, including in the way people comfort the bereaved. Instead of bringing someone food and helping them through a loss, Rheins said, someone might just send flowers or a card because they were busy.
The pandemic, he said, could change this as people realize how much they miss physically being with their friends and families.
“It most certainly will make us reconsider our priorities,” Rheins said. “People are sort of tired of just hearing the words.”
As so many people are experiencing some form of grief, it’s also likely there will be more compassion for those grieving, Black, with Temple Emanuel, later said.
“The uniqueness of the experience will somehow be lessened because so many others will be dealing with it,” he said.
In a society that doesn’t like to talk about death and grief, funerals and other rituals help people get in touch with the emotions that come with the loss of a loved one, said Jamie Sarche, director of pre-planning for Feldman Mortuary.
“It’s hard to process things that we don’t have language for,” she said. “And death is something we don’t have a language for. It helps us have a context with what we are experiencing.”
Having a space for this is important, she said, because grief, despite its presence in everyone’s life, is not always talked about openly. The reasons for not talking about it vary, according to experts, but they include fears of our own mortality.
“We live in a society that says don’t talk about grief,” Sarche said. “Don’t talk about death. We would like people to be better immediately.”
As these funerals and other events get postponed or shortened because of the pandemic, Sarche said, there is a concern that more people will experience complicated grief, which occurs when the normal and intense feelings first felt after a loss, such as depression and anxiety, linger for a long period.
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post
Mourners who could not be present because of the global novel coronavirus pandemic watch via Zoom as the remains of Barbara Mannis are interred at Fort Logan National Cemetery on Friday, May 1, 2020.
It was quiet — even for a cemetery.
In the distance, birds chirped from their perch in the trees planted among the winding rows of white tombstones that surrounded the columbarium.
Sigman was quiet as she stood there and watched the interment. Beside her, Black softly chanted the Jewish prayer “El Malei Rachamim.”
“God full of compassion, you dwell in the heights and in the depths: grant perfect rest under the wings of your presence to… our loved one who has entered eternity,” reads an English translation.
Sigman began to cry, her sniffles muffled by her mask.
“Let her find refuge forever in the shadow of your wings and let her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life; for you, the everlasting God, are her inheritance. May she rest in peace, and let us say: Amen.”
Then, just a mere 10 minutes after it began, the service was over. And as the mourners moved to say their goodbyes to one another, many broke the invisible barrier between them.
One by one, they leaned in and wrapped Sigman in a hug.
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post
Susie Sigman of Denver, right, is embraced by her mother-in-law Bobbe Cook during an interment service for Susie’s mother Barbara Mannis at Fort Logan National Cemetery on Friday, May 1, 2020.