Life must find a way to continue, even during a pandemic.
For those hoping to get married, or sadly for those faced with the loss of a loved one, having to navigate these important life-changing events in this COVID-19 world may appear exceptionally more difficult.
“I really feel like the rug has been pulled out from under all our couple’s feet because they’ve been planning this beautiful day for so long,” says Vanessa Davis, Executive Special Events Consultant for Pearle Hospitality, referring to those faced with altering wedding plans at the company’s many well-known properties which includes the Cambridge Mill and Whistle Bear Golf Club. “The part that I’ve been hearing that is the hardest for people has been the not knowing.”
She estimates COVID-19 has affected at least 500 weddings planned at Pearle Hospitality properties.
“In March and April, we were under mandated closures so there really were no options,” says Vanessa, adding that changed a few weeks ago.
As of June 13, indoor wedding and funeral venues were allowed to operate at a maximum of 30% capacity, with outdoor ceremonies limited to 50 attendees. Receptions remain limited to the 10-person restriction.
And for both indoor and outdoor ceremonies, those attending must follow proper health and safety advice, including practising physical distancing from people who are not from the same household or their established 10-person social circle.
These changes mean couples looking to marry are now faced with making new decisions and left asking many questions.
“What will it be like? That’s a really challenging thing people for people to deal with right now,” says Vanessa. “It’s very emotional for them. They’re weighing a lot of positives and negatives because it’s not what they originally wanted.”
She says some have decided to postpone until they can stick with their original plans, while others for personal and even cultural reasons, are choosing to go ahead and hold a smaller gathering.
“They may decide to have a virtual ceremony they can share with guests near and far on the planned wedding day and have a reception at a later time,” says Vanessa. “I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. It’s whatever they’re going to feel the most comfortable and happy with.”
Virtual ceremonies have become a popular alternative for not only weddings, but also funerals as industry experts do what they can to ensure their clients’ needs are met.
“One of the jobs of a funeral director is not just helping people co-ordinate a funeral that’s unique and personalized, but to provide them with all the information so they can make an informed decision,” says Jon Rolleman, Managing Funeral Director of Coutts Funeral Home in south-end Cambridge.
When it comes to planning a funeral during COVID-19, he and others in his industry have also quickly learned to pivot in wake of strict health restrictions.
Through the course of the pandemic, Jon says many clients chose direct cremation or immediate burial for their loved ones due to the uncertainty of the situation, while others chose to have a limited number of immediate family members take part in a visitation.
“They still got to have the closure they wanted, and I think some people weren’t even expecting to have that opportunity,” he says.
Like those in the wedding industry, Jon says his business practices have also been modified to provide more virtual options including a webcast of the burial service.
“It’s nice to be able to provide that to the people who otherwise couldn’t come,” he says, noting Coutts Funeral Home also ensures through its online condolences system the bereaved know who attended the virtual service. “That way they can still reach out individually and still have the support they need.”
For additional support, Jon says his clients also can utilize a compassion ‘helpline’ on the Coutts Funeral Home website that provides 24-hour access to a variety of services, including certified grief professionals and psychologists. The service is offered through its parent company Dignity Memorial.
“We have some really amazing benefits from being part of a such a large network of funeral homes,” he says, adding they have seen an increase in usage of the helpline during this time. “It’s nice to know it’s there and we get to offer that to our clients.”
As well, clients of Coutts Funeral Home can also make arrangements online, however, Jon says many still prefer the more ‘personal’ touch of a face-to-face meeting.
“We leave it up to them,” he says. “We prefer in person because there is so much more of an individual connection and that’s a big part of what we do.”
Despite creating new options and working within the ongoing restrictions, Jon says his key role and that of his team has remained the same throughout the pandemic.
“Obviously, our job is more empathy and compassion than anything else and making someone’s difficult time easier and the way we approach a family has never changed,” he says.
And with new safety protocols in place, which includes very specific physical distancing rules at visitations and following a series of guidelines, such as collecting information for potential contact tracing purposes, Jon and has team have learned to adapt very quickly.
“Personally, I’m very adaptive so it didn’t stress me out,” he says. “A big part of my role has been making sure I get all this information to my staff and help them manage the changes quickly and make sure their comfortable with the new systems.”
They keep the capacity of mourners at 50 invited guests if a service is requested to take place at a church, or in a cemetery, which Jon says is quite manageable.
“We want to do our part for the community,” he says, referring to keeping people safe. “It’s a real balance to be able to give families what they need.”
Jon says the need for a funeral is imperative in the grieving process and feels sorry for those who decide to forgo that option.
“People are justifying things in different ways for what they’re doing, but they’re really depriving themselves of what a funeral is and what it stands for and how it helps,” says Jon.
“They’re depriving themselves of that opportunity, so I’m concerned about people’s mental health going forward.”
To rectify this issue, he hopes to be able to offer an ‘open’ memorial service, perhaps several, for those clients who have lost someone during the COVID-19 crisis and chose not to have a funeral.
“At least people who didn’t do anything can have a more formalized service,” says Jon, adding funerals are a celebration of life and are no longer ‘traditional’ as they once were. “Funerals are much more personalized and unique. Our job now is to give clients all the options so they can make informed decisions that are right for them.”
The same sentiment holds true when it comes to planning a wedding, especially during a crisis like COVID-19.
“My biggest piece of advice is that whatever they decide to do it’s going be great,” says Vanessa. “If the couple decides they want an intimate ceremony with 10 of their closest people, their other friends and family will understand. And if they decide to wait another year and do the party as planned, that’s a beautiful idea too.”
When COVID-19 struck and Ontario went into lockdown many beds at the two shelters the Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region operates were left empty.
However, this was not something that CEO Jennifer Hutton admits she was glad to see.
“We really saw a significant decrease,” she says, referring to the number of women and children who seek refuge from domestic abuse at Haven House in Cambridge and Anselma House in Kitchener. “But what was keeping me up at night was worrying about what was actually going on in those homes. The abuse that was pre-existing was likely worsening, especially when you add in the additional stress and financial worries.”
Jennifer estimates the shelters, which provide 90 beds between them, saw their occupancy rates drop in the early weeks of the crisis to around 40% to 50% capacity compared to the usual 90% as well as a reduction in calls to access their resources.
“There’s research to prove that violence against women does tend to increase during times of stress,” she says, adding there was a great deal of uncertainty when the pandemic struck which made it even more difficult. “There are already so many barriers in place for a woman to leave an abusive relationship. Then layer it with increased uncertainty, and often women have to think about their children, so it’s hard for them to plan for the future.”
Besides encouraging via social media for friends and family to check in with loved ones they fear might be at risk of abuse, the Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region launched a chat feature on its website to provide women with a tool to safely connect with their services.
“There had been talk about it (chat feature) but now more than ever we needed to do it quickly,” says Jennifer, noting the system was up and running within a 48-hour period. “Now, a woman might be able to pull up our website discreetly on her phone and send us a quick message.”
Having the ability to reach out and connect during the pandemic is vital says Grace Brown, a psychotherapist and PAR (Partner Assault Response Program) Facilitator at Family Counselling Centre of Cambridge & North Dumfries.
“One of the key factors that allows the abuse to continue is the person feels isolated,” she says.
In terms of isolation, Grace says feelings of loneliness is something she has been seeing during her counselling sessions, which have been conducted virtually or by phone, as the COVID-19 situation continues.
“A lot of clients I work with talk about intense feeling of loneliness and isolation because before the pandemic they could be out with friends and doing all these fun things to offset this solitude,” she says. “If you’re more on the extrovert side of the scale, you’re probably struggling a little more.”
Grace says for single people who have been isolating on their own, they face a variety of anxieties which could lead to depression. And for couples who were having challenges in their relationship prior to the pandemic, she says the crisis likely has made the situation even worse.
“There’s only so much walking away one can do when you’re supposed to be quarantined,” says Grace, adding couples need healthy communication during this time. “Choose your battles.”
She offers similar advice to families, who also may find nerves becoming frayed as physical distancing rules continue to slowly ease.
“For most, it’s the lack of access to external fun things that really are making so many people frustrated and anxious,” says Grace. “In the old days, it was called ‘Cabin Fever’.”
But she says there are many successful examples of things couples and families have been doing to cope, besides connecting virtually with family and friends.
“People have really been recapturing some of those old school entertainments, like jigsaw puzzles and board games. It’s been really neat to hear from some of my clients on how they’re making it work with that they have at home,” says Grace, adding some ‘super busy’ families are appreciating the fact they can take a break together.
She says self-care is essential at this time, starting with the basics like eating healthy, exercising and getting the right amount of sleep.
“I often describe it to my clients as emotional shock absorbers. Stress is always going to be in our world in varying degrees, so the more you have self-care that’s your shock absorber,” says Grace, explaining self-care comes in many different forms. “It’s really about focusing on yourself for a moment and doing anything that brings you a sense of calm and a sense of renewed energy.”
She tells her clients, especially women, that’s it OK to put their needs first once and awhile.
At Haven House and Anselma House, Jennifer says, as predicted, capacity levels have climbed sharply to near capacity in the last few weeks once the province began to reopen. She says strict protocols are in place to keep staff and clients healthy, including temperature checks twice daily and making masks mandatory for all staff members.
“The shelters themselves are very busy,” says Jennifer, explaining the women and children staying there aren’t venturing as much into the community to connect with family and friends due to the pandemic. “There’s a lot of activity and not many places for them to go, and we have some pretty stringent rules in place.”
Despite COVID-19 and the precautions, she encourages women who are experiencing domestic abuse to reach out, even those who may not be sure if they’re ready to leave.
“That’s OK. They may just want to meet with someone to ask questions, or get some information,” says Jennifer, adding the Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region offers outreach programs. “I always suggest they get some guidance on how to make a safe exit plan.”
She says research shows the most dangerous time for an abuse victim is when they are planning their escape.
“It can become quite unsafe for a woman if her abusive partner thinks she is going to leave,” says Jennifer. “Things can really escalate at that time.”
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