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Sandy Journal

Sandy families and mortuaries share stories of loss during COVID-19 restrictions

May 05, 2020 11:42AM ● By Heather Lawrence

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

Since March, Utah obituaries have all contained a similar thread: “With COVID-19 gathering restrictions in place, a limited viewing and graveside services of less than 10 will be held.” In many cases, this is a cultural shift from what mourning family and friends are used to. 

“There’s been a big impact on services,” said Nick Larkin, a sixth-generation funeral director who works at Larkin Sunset Gardens in Sandy. “We’re trying to follow regulations on handshakes and hugs. I have a hard time with that – I want to greet people, it’s part of who I am.” 

“We still have viewings, but it’s just one family group of less than 10 at a time. They have their moment, then they leave and the next family group comes in,” Larkin said of the revised viewing procedures. 

“All of our services are still available. We want people to be able to say goodbye and honor their loved ones in a meaningful way,” Larkin said. 

Larkin said that mortuaries were cleared as an essential business in January after years of requests. They feel prepared to help families while protecting their staff and planning for a major influx of business.  

Walt Romney, Jr. learned firsthand about planning a service with new guidelines. His father, Walter Alma Romney, Sr., passed away on March 23 after a hospitalization unrelated to COVID-19. A dentist and lifelong resident of the same neighborhood in Salt Lake City, Romney Sr. left many family, friends and neighbors who wanted to mourn his death and celebrate his life.  

“We’re a very close family and closely connected to the neighborhood. We took it seriously. We were not hugging. It made it really hard. I think we were the test model for what Larkin started doing with viewings. It was strange. The whole service lasted about 15 minutes, then we closed the casket and wheeled it out to the graveside,” Romney Jr. said. 

Other family members sat in their cars in the parking lot and listened to the live stream of the service. “We’re sad about it, and he deserved better. He was certainly worthy of more. It’s just tough. I’ve learned that the face to face, especially for my mom, is really important. I think it’s hard on the healing process,” Romney Jr. said. 

“We’re looking for silver linings,” he continued. “We’re not bitter. We weren’t worried about musical numbers or talks. My sister and I spoke at the grave and my brothers gave prayers. And that was it. Hopefully there will be the opportunity and the energy to meet at a later date with everyone who wants to celebrate his life.” 

The family of Sandy resident Erma Yengich acknowledged that after her passing on April 10, it was difficult to have a smaller service, but felt it was their duty to help stop the spread of the virus. 

“She was part of the Greatest Generation, and they believed that sometimes you have to sacrifice for the greater good and benefit of society. I think my mother would have been fully satisfied that we did the right thing by streaming the funeral mass and sticking with the guidelines. That is the wisdom of that generation,” Rob Yengich said. 

Yengich’s mother was a longtime member of Blessed Sacrament Church in Sandy. The family was able to access the church, and Father Samuel Dinsdale held the funeral mass. They kept it to exactly 10 people. 

“Father Sam and the other staff set up everything. They showed genuine concern for our mother and family. They were so willing to help and also stay within the guidelines, but do it in a wonderful pastoral way,” Yengich said of the service. 

“After the restrictions are lifted, we’ll have a life celebration. It’s not as though it’s a one shot deal. The idea that we step back a little bit and are wise while we get a handle on this [virus], no one should object to that.”

“If Pope Francis can conduct Easter Mass in an empty St. Peter’s Basilica, then we can do this,” Yengich said. 

Funeral directors like Chad Anderson, president of Goff/Anderson Mortuary in Midvale and Draper, are thankful when families understand the current restrictions. “We’re trying to keep numbers at services low. It’s hard to tell a family member, you can come but you can’t come. I find that families are doing a good job of policing it themselves,” Anderson said. 

“We offer live streaming services through Facebook and also audio recording services, which we’ve always offered. It’s not the same, but we do what we can do at this given time,” Anderson said. 

Pre-planned services can still be used and Anderson said that Goff is trying to be flexible. “If someone has a pre-planned arrangement, we’re giving them a credit for the part of that arrangement we’re not using. It can go towards something else or be refunded,” Anderson said. 

Anderson said that families may not feel the full weight of the grieving process until after the service. “A lot of times the process of grief happens after we have worked with the family. They put on a tough face to get through it. I feel that the viewing is closure, so we’re doing the best we can to accommodate that need.”

Larkin Mortuary offers an online service for anyone who needs help processing grief. “I feel that the grief process has been intensified. We offer a grief resource that is free and accessible through our website. Click on the ‘Grief and Healing’ link, it will take you to the ‘domani’ page. Use the code ‘Larkin’ for free access,” Larkin said. 

To process grief, Clinic Director Porter Macey at Amber Creek Counseling in Sandy said there are things that will help.  

“One of the biggest predictors of getting through any hardship is a positive support system. That’s why traditional funerals can work well; we’re surrounded by that support system. Finding a way to still gain the support in a nontraditional way is going to be important,” Macey said. 

Macey suggests video calling to connect with people. “You’ll have to take more initiative to rally your support system than usual. Ask someone to call you every day to check in. Tell people what you need or that you’re having a bad day,” Macey said. 

“If you have friends who are grieving, validate their feelings of sadness. If they feel shafted that they didn’t get to hold a traditional funeral, validate that. Let people know you’re willing to listen to the same stories over and over. Call them without trying to force them to talk about the death. And remember that even if they have a good day or week, grief can come back,” Macey said. 

Macey also recommends one-on-one therapy, which is still happening with visits on Skype or other services. “With this isolation and the increased anxiety of the pandemic, grief can be compounded. Don’t wait if you need help. [The counseling community] is here, we’re thinking about you and we want to help,” Macey said. 

There is no time limit on grief. “The goal isn’t to move on and not be sad. We never want to get to a point where we think about our loved one and not miss them. There is no timeline, and a gathering can still be uplifting and healing months after they’ve passed.”

“People do deserve that type of farewell, and so does the family. They deserve to see all the lives a person influenced. I would remind people that it doesn’t make that person’s life less valuable regardless of how we celebrate the end of his life,” Macey said.

The Jeppson family is keeping that in mind as they honor their father, Trent Jeppson, a resident of Sandy and former mayor of Midvale. Jeppson passed away April 16, three months after his wife Mildred. 

“For my mom, we had the comfort of many friends and relatives close by to lift us up. We were in our normal circles where people would ask how my parents were doing, so when they did pass, it was natural to share the news,” said Jeppson’s daughter, Jan Jeppson Phillips of Midvale. 

“We had a culture that suggested rules for how we handled the viewing, the funeral, the dedication of the grave, the pallbearers, the display tables showing her life and accomplishments. There’s a lot of business and busyness,” Phillips said. 

“With social distancing, the old rules are out and the new rules leave families to figure it out themselves,” Phillips said. “There are many opinions and strong feelings to be considered. There is more quiet time for reflection and processing grief.” 

“Yes, we will miss sitting around with family at our church eating funeral potatoes and sharing funny stories,” Phillips said, “but we will do that later.”