Waiting to Exhale: Families’ Need to Grieve COVID-19

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Mourning traditions in Asian American communities altered by pandemic.

Leaning on each other for comfort at the viewing of Rosary Castro Olega are husband Mario Olega, daughters Tiffany, Tatiana, and Trisha, and sister Rosalie Castro.

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

When Tiffany Olega experienced the loss of her mother and my sister-in-law, Rosary, 63, the first healthcare worker to become a victim of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County last March, Tiffany was suddenly cast into America’s new reality.

Despite the best efforts of doctors and nurses like Rosary, the mysterious, bullying coronavirus continues to decide who will die and when. Tiffany, 29, drew upon the strength she inherited from her parents and began the arduous task of making final arrangements.

She soon came to realize that not only had the pandemic taken one of her parents, it was also denying her family the traditions they had come to associate with the passing of a loved one.

Memorial services often mean large gatherings. In the Japanese American community, it’s not uncommon for hundreds of grieving friends and relatives to gather in support of each other. For Filipinos who follow Catholic traditions, like the Olegas, there are multiple ceremonies. First, there is a vigil that includes a rosary service. Next, there is a funeral mass, and finally, there is the graveside committal.

Japanese American funeral arrangements are often imbued with customs rooted in Japan. Christians in the Japanese American community are likely to follow their church’s traditions.

For the moment, families are forced to postpone and/or adjust final arrangements as funeral homes, religious institutions, and cemeteries adhere to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

When Tiffany Olega was advised that only five family members were allowed to attend her mother’s viewing, she agonized over which five people in her large family she would choose. It became one of the most difficult decisions of her young life. Rosary had three daughters, three sisters, and two brothers.

Tiffany chose her father, her two sisters, and her mother’s twin sister, Rosalie.

Rosary Castro Olega with her daughter Tiffany. Castro Olega was the first healthcare worker in Los Angeles County to die of COVID-19. A retired registered nurse known for her love of the Lakers, Castro Olega continued to volunteer at short-staffed hospitals until she fell ill in mid-March.

Gerald Fukui, president of the family-owned, five-generation Fukui Mortuary, says that most families adapt to new rules even when it means forgoing long-held traditions. Some customs can proceed — cremation and burial, for example — but the number of family members allowed is limited, depending on the facility or cemetery. In most cases, only five or 10 are permitted. Some cemeteries only allow the funeral director to be present.

Fukui estimates that, of the arrangements sought by families in the past three months, about 20 were COVID-related deaths. Still, the CDC directives apply to everyone.

Cleaning and disinfecting are conducted regularly and often. Masks and gloves are required along with access to handwashing sinks and hand sanitizer.

“We do the arrangements online or remotely because we have to protect our staff as well as the families making the arrangements,” Fukui adds. “Attendees who are not family members must practice social distancing, and those who are sick are asked to stay at home.”

Most temples and churches are closed and use of the chapel at Fukui’s headquarters in downtown Los Angeles is limited to 10 attendees at a time.

In the meantime, Fukui has instituted webcasting and video recording of services so that they can be viewed safely and privately at home.

Like most mortuaries and funeral homes, Fukui anticipates a flood of requests for long-delayed memorial and “celebration of life” services as soon as CDC protocols are lifted.

The pandemic has failed, however, to dampen Tiffany’s spirits even as she missed out on another major event — her college graduation — just last week.

Friends made sure that her accomplishment, which also happened to be her mother’s dream, did not go without hoopla and secretly arranged a drive-by celebration full of cheers, balloons and honking horns.

It was the silly, noisy kind of party she probably needed, and something all could use right about now.

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