In this edition of the Wellness Q&A Series Beth McGroarty, VP, Research & Forecasting, Global Wellness Institute asks:
What has the coronavirus revealed about our culture around death and dying? What is most broken and needs fixing?
What tangible actions can people take to deal with all this fear, grief and dying—to put them in a better place mentally?
How is digital disrupting the death and funeral industry?
Q&A with Dr. Candi Cann, Associate Professor of Religion, Baylor University, and Liz Eddy, CEO and Co-Founder of Lantern.
Dr. Candi Cann and Liz Eddy are both experts on death and dying and members of the GWI’s Dying Well Initiative. Both work to make industries, organizations, conversations and cultural practices around death more healthy and humane.
Dr. Cann, associate professor in religion at Baylor University, researches death and dying, with her current work focused on diversity in death and the intersection of death and technology around the world. She received her AM and PhD in Comparative Religion from Harvard University.
Liz Eddy is CEO and co-founder of Lantern, a public benefit corporation that provides a single source of guidance for navigating life before and after a death. She has always built companies that tackle taboo topics, founding her first social venture at age 15 focused on dating abuse and domestic violence education in schools. She has a Master of Science from Columbia University and is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper.
VP, Research & Forecasting, GWI, Beth McGroarty: 125 million cases…561,000 deaths…our world has been hit with so much grief, trauma and death. What has COVID-19, that great exposer of social ills, revealed about our culture around death and dying? Any big shifts? What is broken and most needs fixing?
LIZ EDDY: The most profound shift I’ve witnessed is the deeper connection we’ve developed to our own mortality. This experience has given everyone a sense of what grief feels like, even if they haven’t lost someone close to them. It’s my hope that this collective grief will lead to more empathy for those grieving in the future and that we gain a deeper understanding of the inequities in how we die and grieve.
CANDI CANN: Is there widespread grief and trauma? Absolutely. But COVID-19 has radically exposed how some people have much more privilege than others. It’s hitting people of color and people from the lower classes far harder: They’re getting sick and dying in dramatically higher numbers because of numerous systemic issues, including unequal access to healthcare. The coronavirus crisis teaches us we have an incredibly long way to go with privilege in this society. We have not paid attention to this. We must.
So, while this is a universally traumatic experience, we need to grasp what it’s like for communities that experience profound fear and trauma every day: black people that are afraid every time a police car pulls up behind them or are simply afraid to go jogging. What’s unique to this moment is that for many people, especially the privileged, this is the first time that they’ve experienced such intense fear and trauma.
Liz Eddy: COVID-19 has also exposed the gross limitations that have been set on bereavement leave. Three days of bereavement are not enough. Period. You can see governments acknowledging this now: New York state recently put in place mandatory, BUT temporary, bereavement leave policies.
Candi Cann: Many countries have bereavement policies at the federal or state level, but many people aren’t aware that the US doesn’t have any such thing: It all depends on the company you work for, which means there are class inequities. Salaried employees typically get between three days and a week to mourn, but only for a very close family member. Hourly workers generally don’t get any time off. Think of all the quote-unquote “essential” workers (and I recently read a great statement from one, saying, “We’re not essential, we’re expendable”) and how hard it is for them to take time to make funeral arrangements or come together to grieve. I agree: We have a fundamental need to have better bereavement policies, especially with so many people dying.
Liz Eddy: A third issue the pandemic has exposed is the huge, mind-boggling lack of training around discussing end of life in the healthcare system. 68% of physicians reported they had not received training in how to have end of life conversations.
During COVID-19, clinicians are handling dying and death head-on, without the buffer of family members being there. It’s such a challenge for healthcare professionals on the frontlines that we’ve created a short video training, pulling from existing evidence-based practices. Dr. Atul Gawande has done incredible work around this, but healthcare workers don’t have time now to read a long book or research paper right now. So, we boiled down the key info into this two-minute video.
GWI: What tangible actions can people take to deal with all this fear, grief, sickness and dying—to put them in a better place mentally?
Liz Eddy: At Lantern, we help people navigate life before and after a death. We know younger generations are far more open to confronting mortality—just look at the death positive movement. We’ve seen this trend coming for a decade. But, during COVID-19, so many more people are taking action. We saw 120% growth in our end-of-life planning services when COVID-19 began in the US—mostly for people under age 45.
Candi Cann: The crucial advice: The more prepared you are to die, and the more preparations you have made regarding your death—from your will to your advanced directives to your funeral—the better you will feel and the less afraid and anxious you will be.
Liz Eddy: Also, there is a huge misconception that having a will is having an end-of-life plan. But there are so many other aspects to consider: outlining your end-of-life wishes, your advanced care directives, guardianship (if you have kids), how you want your funeral to be, your digital legacy, password storage, the location of your documents, and documenting your history and legacy. Just to name a few.
Candi Cann: The legacy piece is so important. My mom died when I was young. One thing I’ve done every year is to write my daughter a letter so that if I die, she would have these records of how much I loved her and how much joy she has brought me each and every year.
Liz Eddy: It is the most beautiful thing you can leave behind. Having a story, memory, or recorded voice of a person you love after they’re gone is beyond meaningful.
Candi Cann: Grieving is so difficult under COVID-19, with social distancing protocols and issues around end-of-life and death care. Navigating the complex restrictions—and the sheer volume of loss—is overwhelming. How can you comfort a person when you can’t be present? How do you mark someone’s passing when you can’t hold a traditional funeral? To help people develop new rituals to honor those who die during the pandemic, we assembled a group of over 70 doctors, nurses, scholars, grief therapists, hospice workers, chaplains, etc. (from around the world) to create the COVIDPaper, which offers lots of tools and tips to grieve in this strange time. It’s being shared widely and getting a great reception.
Liz Eddy: Another action to take: Create a culture within your home that makes it ok and normal to talk about death. When I was growing up, my mom was always imparting, in casual ways, how she wanted her death to be, what songs to play, etc. I knew her end-of-life wishes without it having to be this huge, terrifying conversation. If you avoid this for a long time and start having these conversations with your parents or child suddenly, it feels like you think that you or they are going to die soon or that you’re trying to get something from them. Having a culture at home where you speak about death saves a lot of heartache and is a huge gift you can give to your family.
GWI: Just how hard is it for children under COVID-19, hearing about how their parents could die, even how they could die?
Liz Eddy: People make a mistake in thinking that kids aren’t clued into mortality. Even if they haven’t lost a family member, they’re heavily exposed: It’s all over the TV shows they watch; their icons, like Kobe Bryant, die…
Candi Cann: With the coronavirus, my 13-year-old daughter is having real anxiety about this. I’m a single parent and her sole caregiver, so I have had conversations with her: Who do you want to live with if I get sick or die? I explained that I set up a trust for her. It has really calmed her anxiety, knowing there’s a plan. Parents need to realize that kids are very dialed-in on death. Talk to them openly.
GWI: Almost every industry is seeing a massive migration to digital platforms under COVID-19. People have largely lost that face-to-face support in grieving and death—but how are online solutions helping? Will we see a more “digital” death industry—more online solutions for “dying well”—post-COVID?
Liz Eddy: One big shift has been the rise in virtual funerals and companies moving into virtual funeral planning. They’re working hard to create experiences as close to an actual funeral/memorial service: not just a meet-and-greet between family members but actually live-streaming the service and burial.
You hear two sides. One: Grieving without being able to touch another person is heartbreaking, and I think there will be a lot of research coming out on the impact of grief over time without being able to sit, laugh and cry with family and friends—to go through photos, to share meals. But the flip, positive side is how virtual capabilities are (and will continue to) allow communities to come together that previously weren’t able to: friends and family that live far away, older relatives that can’t travel, people that are sick or hospitalized. They can join the services now in a way they couldn’t before. My company is in the digital innovation end-of-life space, and COVID-19 has carved out a much bigger place for us in what has been a historically offline industry.
Candi Cann: If you have Internet access, there are fantastic technologies and tools rising to create new communities for the sick, elderly and dying (and get beyond the “dying alone” crisis) that we simply never had before. If someone is in a nursing home or alone at home, set up a smart speaker, and you can communicate without needing the constant intervention of someone there. I tell my smart speaker to call my stepmom, and I pop right into her home.
But we must acknowledge the tech divide. People that are very comfortable with technology have made this pandemic transition rather seamlessly, and they’re delighted that so many more people are finally embracing new technologies. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has hit older and poorer populations much harder—populations with less access to all these digital solutions and that rely on support from now-closed traditional churches. I think people can jump so far ahead with technology that they forget the really low-tech ways that we can connect with people: You can make phone calls, and you can write letters and put a stamp on them.
I think that the more successful organizations and practices that support people in death and grieving—whether churches or the funeral industry—have a hybrid digital future. I now attend online church services every Sunday (I love it, I’m in my pajamas, drinking coffee). The amazing thing: A lot of college students that moved away are suddenly attending virtually, so we have a whole new church membership. Our church is now thinking of holding in-person services and live streaming them because they realize we can reach this community that misses us. In the funeral industry, many of the mom-and-pop shops lag on technology. COVID-19 has forced them to get on board or lose business. I see this as a real positive.
One practical note on virtual funerals: Someone recently made a brilliant point; if you’re holding an online memorial, make sure you appoint someone else to deal with the tech issues. You can’t grieve and handle tech issues at the same time. It’s really a whole new job that has emerged.
GWI: Any last words of advice for people on how to survive this difficult time?
Candi Cann: Around the world, some of us have been in this for four months, some six—and we’re in it for another year or so. People are understandably so focused on the “dying part,” but we need to figure out how to live well even in the face of all this sickness and dying. Yes, we may be in lockdown or scared to return to our jobs, but we’re still alive. Embrace life; focus on living.
We want to hear from you
What has COVID-19 revealed about our culture around death and dying? How do you think people can deal with fear, grief and dying?