‘Thy will be done’: Catholics cope with grief and loss during COVID-19 pandemic

Erin Coppola shares a moment with her mother, Linda Hayes, during Coppola’s wedding. Hayes, a parishioner of SS. Peter and Paul Parish in North Branch and the former parish secretary, died in December 2020 from COVID-19 — a loss her daughter and the parish community is still trying to process. (Courtesy of Erin Coppola)

Whether they died of COVID-19 or not, family members say losing a loved one during pandemic carries heartache only God can heal

NORTH BRANCH When the rituals Catholics rely upon became unavailable during the worst days of COVID-19, many struggled to help their ailing loved ones and then to grieve their loss.

Linda Hayes was an active member of SS. Peter and Paul Parish in North Branch who cared deeply about others. Her daughter, Erin Coppola, knew about her mom’s caring nature, but after Hayes passed away last year from COVID-19, it became clear that others saw this side of her, too. 

“After she was gone, I learned about all the little things my mom had quietly done for people,” Coppola, also a member of the parish, told Detroit Catholic.

The stories brought comfort, but the pain still lingers for Coppola and her family. 

Hayes was diagnosed with the coronavirus in November and died after two difficult weeks in the hospital, during which family was not allowed at her bedside. Talking on the phone was a challenge with Hayes’ poor hearing and the noise from the machines in her room. Coppola, a physical therapist, communicated with doctors and nurses on behalf of her family. 

On the day Hayes died, Coppola said a prayer asking God to help her and other family members be granted permission to see her mom in the hospital. Her prayers were answered when a nurse called to tell her it was time to come.

While losing her mother was one of the most difficult moments of her life, Erin Coppola still found grace in those final moments. (Courtesy of Erin Coppola)

At first, Coppola was only allowed to see her mother through the window, but then the nurse invited her into the room. She held her mother’s hand and listened to her final wishes. To the end, her mother demonstrated her caring spirit, telling Coppola to be nice to the nurses who had cared for her.

Coppola asked a patient advocate about calling a priest for the anointing of the sick, but none were available. Instead, a pastor from a nearby Christian church prayed with them.

Hayes was surrounded by her husband and four children when she died on Dec. 3, 2020. 

“There were many acts of God that day,” Coppola said.

To name a few: a nurse at the hospital was particularly kind to them in her mother’s final days. Her brother, who lives in Wisconsin, was able to get a flight with a pilot friend and arrive at the hospital just in time to say goodbye to his mother.  

“She was part of our staff and was like part of our family,” Fr. Treml said. “She was a very sensitive person with a big heart. Sometimes she would cry and then feel embarrassed, but I told her she has the gift of tears, and that’s a good thing.”

On her way out the door to work that morning, Coppola slipped on her mother’s floral rainboots. She planned to change out of them but forgot to bring extra shoes; she wound up going to the hospital wearing the cheerful boots that exemplified her mom’s personality.

Fr. Richard Treml knew Hayes well, as pastor at SS. Peter and Paul Parish. Hayes had served as the parish secretary for more than eight years and volunteered for many ministries.

“She was part of our staff and was like part of our family,” Fr. Treml said. “She was a very sensitive person with a big heart. Sometimes she would cry and then feel embarrassed, but I told her she has the gift of tears, and that’s a good thing.”

Because of an injury, COVID-19 restrictions, and his age of 76 years, Fr. Treml could not visit patients in the hospital. He administered the anointing of the sick to Hayes in the parish office in August, before Hayes had shoulder surgery. 

Now, four months after Hayes’ passing, Coppola has been back for Sunday Masses but finds it difficult to be there with so many reminders of her mother at church. Her mom sang in the choir most Sundays. When they sat next to each other in Mass, her mom would hold her hand during the “Our Father” and then squeeze it before she let go at the end of the prayer. 

“I’d say this whole experience has brought me closer to God,” Coppola said. “I remember saying, ‘Thy will be done,’ in my prayer the morning she died and feeling at peace, but it’s still hard.”

When Michelle Power’s mother, Barbara, was hospitalized with pneumonia in April 2020, the family relied upon a pair of priest friends who ministered to them over the phone. Barbara’s passing was difficult, but the family was grateful for the small graveside service at the cemetery. (Courtesy of Michelle Power)

Michelle Power’s mother died in the early days of the pandemic from corticobasal degeneration, a progressive neurological disease that took years to diagnose. As her muscles weakened, she moved from a walker to a wheelchair with her husband as her caregiver.

“My dad never complained about what he had to do. He was a true servant,” Power said. “He made sure she never wore the same sweater two days in a row so that the ladies in their senior living community wouldn’t wonder.” 

Power’s mother was hospitalized in April 2020 with pneumonia and trouble swallowing because of the disease. Her condition worsened with each day. Power was allowed into her mother’s hospital room just two hours before she passed away. 

Because it was at the height of COVID-19, Power and her father were unable to talk with their parish priests.

“But I feel blessed to have a couple friends who are priests who helped us through it,” Power said. “I don’t know if I could have gotten through those days without it.”

Her friends, Fr. Thomas Kuehnemund and Fr. Cornelius Okeke, ministered to her on the phone. Fr. Kuehnemund drove from his parish in Emmett to pray with them at the cemetery. No funerals were allowed at the time, but 10 people could be present for a graveside service. Her daughter picked daffodils from their yard for the gathering.

“Having a priest there to pray with us, and something as small as a few daffodils, made it feel normal. It felt like we were doing right by Mom within the context of the times,” Power said.

Two months later, Power’s ex-husband was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. Power’s 16-year-old daughter, Kendal, was not allowed at the hospital because of visitor restrictions. He died in emergency surgery on Father’s Day, and Power was faced with helping her daughter through her own grief. 

Michael Lavigne, left, died after a motorcycle accident last summer. His daughter, Kendal, right, wasn’t allowed to visit him in the hospital, but found comfort through the ministry of Msgr. Timothy Hogan, their pastor. 
A group of motorcycles accompanies Michael Lavigne’s hearse to the cemetery. Lavigne was an avid motorcyclist, and many of his non-Catholic friends attended the funeral.

By then, funerals were permitted with COVID-19 protocols. Msgr. Timothy Hogan, pastor of St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills, spent an hour with the family to prepare for the funeral.

“He really listened to us, and I know his homily touched many who were there,” Power said.

Power and her daughter are now members of St. Fabian, and Power believes Kendal has been able to heal through the compassion and support of Msgr. Hogan and the parish community. 

For her own grief, Power takes it one day at a time. She has discovered the power of novenas and other devotions to stay hopeful and positive after so much loss.

“It’s hard to keep going. It’s like pedaling a bike without a chain,” Power said.

Fr. David Cybulski, pastor at St. Isaac Jogues Parish in St. Clair Shores, prayed with and for his parishioners when he wasn’t allowed to be at the hospital or care facilities during the pandemic. Now that he is vaccinated, he can safely provide anointing of the sick to those who request it and at facilities where vaccinated clergy are allowed. 

The number of calls to St. Isaac Jogues requesting the sacrament have declined over time, but Fr. Cybulski hopes parishioners will see the importance of anointing for anyone who is seriously ill or facing surgery. 

“The sacrament provides strength and hope at a time when a person is suffering,” Fr. Cybulski said.

For those who lost loved ones during the pandemic, especially when priests weren’t allowed inside a hospital, Fr. Cybulski reminds them of God’s love and mercy.

“God is merciful, and while the sacraments are the surest way to salvation, God can work outside them in circumstances where it is not possible to receive an anointing,” Fr. Cybulski said.

Grief and loss support

Those grieving the loss of a loved one can find support resources on the Archdiocese of Detroit’s website, Grief and Loss Resources – Archdiocese of Detroit.