When Heidi Bock got the call that her close friend with cancer had died this spring, there was joy intermingled with the sadness. “I felt we could connect through prayer again,” said Bock, a member of Holy Rosary Parish in Northeast Portland.

Like countless mourners during the pandemic, Bock endured a painful lack of close contact with her dying friend and the full range of rituals that help people grieve. “It was absolutely different and difficult because of COVID-19,” she said. But Bock and others have found death amid the pandemic allows for unexpected spiritual gifts and growth.

“There’s been a shift in my perspective toward grief,” said Bock, 38. “Hugs and holding someone’s hand are good, but they are signs of something even greater — what is unseen between you and me. God is asking us to lean a little more on what is not seen.”

Spiritual shift

Martha Williams, a longtime parishioner of Holy Rosary who wrote icons for the parish, was diagnosed with lung cancer in February. She died at age 76 in April, about a month into Oregon’s stay-at-home order.

Williams had been a dear friend to Bock and became a second mother after Bock’s own mom died 10 years ago. Bock was able to visit Williams a few times while she was dying but without physical closeness.

“It’s a whole new level of suffering during the pandemic because there’s often no consolation found by being in the presence of the person,” said Bock.

It’s human nature, she said, to ask God why he’s allowing the coronavirus to exist or why he’s allowing a disease that requires distressing limitations around hospital visits, funerals and end-of-life care.

Most hospitals in the state currently permit only one or two adult visitors at a time with a dying patient. Funerals in the Portland area are limited to 50 people, and cemeteries can have just 25 mourners graveside. Then there are safety measures individual families navigate to keep family members safe and prevent the spread of the virus.

Franciscan Father Benedict Joseph Groeschel, an author and psychologist, said that when faced with suffering, people understandably ask why. But asking why there’s such a brutal illness depends on knowing the mind of God, said Bock. The question should be, “What are we to do?”

The answer she found was not comfortable: Do less, pray more.

“I’m Martha, the one who runs over with a meal; I find deep peace in that,” said Bock, referring to the woman in the Bible who is concerned with hosting, while her sister Mary sits at the feet of Jesus to ponder his teachings.

“I think God is inviting all of us to be more like Mary during the pandemic, to enter more deeply into the mystical body of Christ,” Bock said. “When we are desperately longing to console others, to bring a meal or an embrace, we can turn to prayer and sacrifice and intercession. That’s where my shift had to be when my friend was dying. It is expansive but painful.”

Yet when death did occur, she could be receptive to something exquisite — feeling connection and joy through prayer. “I spoke to her, and it was beautiful,” said Bock.

This spiritual shift also helped her understand another reality about death. “If we aren’t able to share or show how deeply someone means to us before they die, there is this fear that they will not know how we feel,” she said. But to truly convey how we feel about those we profoundly love is impossible, “for humans are meant for eternity.”

“No one can express our love adequately,” Bock said, “because that’s an eternal conversation.”

Modest and fitting

During Holy Week, Meaghen Igloria lost her 66-year-old mom to breast cancer.

Because it was early in the pandemic, before widespread understanding about how the virus spreads, it was especially hard to determine what precautions to put in place.

“Now it feels routine and normal to wear masks and keep a distance,” said Igloria, a member of Holy Redeemer Parish in North Portland. “But at the time we were wondering if we were being selfish by limiting people at the house to try and protect our families and kids.”

Her mother, Beth Wells, was the youngest of 10 children and a lifelong Portlander who had been part of the local Catholic Worker movement and worked at the Mount Angel Abbey bookstore. “She had abundant friends,” said Igloria, 45. “And many of them, and even some siblings, never had the chance to say goodbye because of COVID-19.”

Wells sang in Portland’s Cantores in Ecclesia, an internationally recognized liturgical choir, and normally there would have been a packed church with the choir’s music filling the sanctuary, Igloria said. Instead there simply was the rite of committal near the gravesite.

Only 25 people were allowed at the cemetery, so Wells’ children were forced to make the gut-wrenching choice to keep it simply to her children, their spouses and grandchildren. None of her mom’s siblings were there. Nor was Wells’ mother.

Igloria empathizes with a sister who felt the loss of the funeral Mass acutely. Igloria, though, views it differently.

“In a strange way, I was personally grateful to have the coronavirus change what we went through,” she said.

When Igloria’s father died several years ago, there was a lively wake. Friends packed the house. “There was singing, stories and wine, and I appreciate that experience so much,” she said. “But my mom was a different person.”

She was a woman “of deep faith who was also deeply private,” said Igloria. “A smaller funeral felt almost more fitting to who my mom was,” Igloria said. “It was a quiet affair, and that felt right.”

‘We need one another’

Igloria said there can be a lot of anxiety and chaos around a death, especially if it’s unexpected. She encourages those facing the loss of a loved one to set aside time “to let God speak to your heart.”

Father William Holtzinger, pastor of St. Anne Parish in Grants Pass, lost his mother last month and has witnessed the struggles of parishioners lacking certain rituals.

“Death during COVID-19 is a double grief,” he said. “People have lost their loved one as well as some of the normal ways of grieving.”

The priest suggests mourners have a Mass celebrated for the person who died, write them a letter or do something the loved one enjoyed.

He said you can also ask yourself: What did that person do that inspired you? “Then go out and do that.”

The act of clutching a rosary in times of sorrow is helpful, added Bock.

But even with prayer, “there’s still an important place for community in our grief,” she said, and she encourages mourners to reach out to friends, a counselor or a priest.

“We need one another,” said Bock, “even if we can’t hug and hold each other.”