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Coping with grief and loss during COVID-19 pandemic from a female funeral director's perspective

Diana Robinson, founder and CEO of Celebrations of Life Toronto.

For many, one of the saddest, if not most traumatic elements of the recent COVID-19 pandemic is the loss of loved ones to this terrible disease. Many will be caught off guard when it comes to funeral plans for the beloved, and the disease itself has made funeral planning strenuous at best.

The funeral industry as a whole is one based on compassion, full of bereavement experts who deal in grief, and who are front line experts in handling the dizzying details that go into end of life matters. The pandemic has disrupted the grieving process, by restricting funeral and memorial attendance, and denying the human need to congregate during a loss adds another layer of grief and stress on the mental health of those in mourning — especially those who did not have a chance to even say goodbye. We recently spoke with licensed funeral director Diana Robinson, founder and CEO of Celebrations of Life Toronto memorial planning company. As a woman in what is considered a predominantly male-focused industry, she candidly shares her memories on when she decided to enter the bereavement industry, her most difficult funeral, and what to expert with the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s what she has to say: Q. What has the pandemic done to those facing the loss of a loved one? A: Social distancing has restricted grieving families from paying tribute to their lost loved ones, which is a very important part of the grieving process — adding another layer of grief and stress on their mental health. People are coping by planning, pre-booking memorials for their lost loved ones, for when the pandemic is over. This gives peace of mind, and a light at the end of the tunnel, knowing their deceased loved one will receive the memorial they deserve, and that their memory will not be forgotten or overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Q. How is the industry coping with the pandemic? A. It’s been a difficult situation to navigate. I have been concentrating on how to help families at this time who are really disproportionately affected by losing someone. I have been working on therapeutic activities for them to work on while grieving in isolation such as organizing photos, home videos and music to create audio visual keepsakes. Q. How will the industry handle the onslaught of deaths? A. Changes are happening daily, and funeral homes have been in close contact with our governing boards to ensure the right safety measures are put in place for families, as well as staff members that are in contact with people who died of COVID-19 or suspected of it. We have been advised to prepare additional staff and equipment with the support of the province to ensure we can handle the influx of deaths, extending hours, enforcing distancing and sanitization measures. Our profession has emerged as the front line leaders in supporting us with constant updates and webinars with Q&As. Once the social distancing measures are over, we are expecting a surge in memorials and tributes, as people need to grieve together. Q. How old were you when you decided on this career? A. I was 17 years old when I decided I wanted to be a funeral director after learning about the program at Humber College, in Ontario. Q. What did your family think? A. My family was a little surprised because we had no family or friends in the business. Plus I was teased that I was too sensitive growing up. Ultimately, they were very supportive though. When I was an adolescent, several members of my extended family died in a short time period, so I became acquainted with funeral homes early, I think this really left an impression on me. Q. Were there many women in the industry when you joined? A. Initially the funeral industry was completely male dominated, however there was an increasing number of women when I started; 50% of my class was female. Today, the number of female funeral directors has grown to the point where women are the majority of the graduating classes now. Q. What would you say to girls who are interested in this unusual career? A. I would tell girls: “This career is demanding and meaningful and you are going to be great at it. Do not let the status quo of male leadership and ownership determine how far or high you can go.” Q. What was the hardest part when you first started? A. Learning the balance of being compassionate and professional and not being overcome with emotion for the families… we see people at the height of their emotional state, often in shock at the worst time of their lives, and a wide range of causes of death. Q. What is the most rewarding part of your work? A. Connecting with families and knowing that I provided comfort, compassion and a job well done during the worst time of their life. Q. What was your first funeral like? A. I have arranged and directed thousands of services over the years! I remember being a nervous 23-year-old, amazed at all the details of planning. One of my first funerals was for a family arranging for their mother, and at the end the son thanked me and said, “I have to be honest, when I first met you, I wasn’t too sure about you, being so young and with your spiky hair, but I have to say, you did a great job.” We laughed, and things seemed to get a little easier after that. Q: What was your most challenging funeral? A. In over 20 years, the most challenging was for a seven-year-old child who died. The circumstances were incredibly tragic. The logistics of the event were carried out well but the emotional challenges of helping a family completely in shock really made me realize the type of strength that was required of me. The family was able to come to me and the other staff as we forged a compassionate bond early on. It was around this time that I started to develop creative ideas around how to have a meaningful tribute for those that didn’t want a traditional funeral. This made me begin to think about starting my own company that focused on the personalization aspect of a memorial rather than the grief rituals. What does this veteran funeral director offer the most? A compassionate shoulder. “Over 20 years of taking care of bereaved families, I found that sometimes people just need to talk to an experienced, impartial, empathetic listener. I want people to know that we will get through this challenging time, and that COVID-19 doesn’t have to overshadow the memory of their loved-one,” says Robinson. For more information about Celebrations of Life Toronto, visit THE BUSINESS OF DEATH Death is a billion dollar industry in Canada. According to the market research specialists, Canada’s growing and aging population has resulted in the number of deaths trending upward over the five years to 2020, bolstering demand for funeral services. COVID has thrown a monkey wrench into regular planning, which is a complicated process at best. Public Safety Canada has deemed funeral directors federally essential, and the industry is currently monitoring the pandemic around the clock to provide the most updated information as it becomes available to industry types as Canada prepares for COVID-19 deaths. A statement from the Funeral Association of Canada (FSAC) states, “We recognize that FSAC members across Canada are seeking guidance on how to best serve families, protect their staff and as a business, remain ahead of the pandemic.” “Funeral professionals are already working with governments within their jurisdictions to ensure that those who have passed away from COVID-19 are respectfully and properly handled,” notes Brett Watson, president of FSAC. “This is also a realization that funeral professionals are at the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to be ready to support governments in their response.”

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