By HOLLY PRESTIDGE • Richmond Times-Dispatch
The loneliness of being in an empty church built for 600 only intensified Bill Braden’s grief. He’d had five years to prepare for the love of his life — his wife, Susan — to die. She was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2015 and outlived doctor’s grim expectations. Each extra day, week, month was a gift. They both knew it.
Still, he’d let his mind wander to what saying his final goodbyes might be like.
He never imagined this.
On Tuesday morning, Braden and his four family members lined a pew inside Tabernacle Baptist Church as somewhere out of sight, a camera’s eye caught everything as it streamed the service live for friends and family.
“It was a lonely experience,” he said, especially because he knew his wife was beloved by many and, had the circumstances been different, upward of 400 people would’ve been sitting in that church with him.
The human element so crucial for families at times of death — bear hugs and firm handshakes, the physical proximity of loved ones and friends to offer support — is all but gone as the nation quarantines itself from the coronavirus.
“One of the most powerful parts of funeral rituals is it gives people a chance to come and support the families and embrace and hug,” said Carey Bliley, president and CEO of Bliley Funeral Homes. COVID-19 fears now force families to make difficult decisions about how to handle their loved ones’ celebrations of life.
Some delay services, he said, hopeful that they’ll be able to resume their plans once the pandemic is over. Those that proceed have been reduced to intimate gatherings of fewer than 10 people. Even when stringent safety measures are put in place for visitations or graveside services, fears about the virus keep many people home.
“Things are changing rapidly and none of us have ever gone through this,” he said, so “we’re learning and figuring out ways” to help families through it.
The services “take on a different form from what a lot of families are used to,” he said.
That’s because much of the funeral process now happens digitally.
Lacyn Barton, president of Woody and Nelsen Funeral Homes, said many people are using web conferencing for making arrangements and even choosing caskets and other products. When in-person meetings are necessary, they limit participants to no more than three family members so they can maintain social distancing.
It’s difficult, she said, because face-to-face interactions — that personal touch — is part of helping families deal with death.
The public “is privy to the same information we are,” Barton said about COVID-19, and “families are being very understanding.”
They’re adapting quickly, too, she said. Some people create Facebook profiles just to be able to see the virtual services, which have become increasingly popular.
Barton said she’s noticed that use of the 24-hour compassion line, a service provided by Woody and Nelsen funeral homes that offers grief counseling, has spiked.
“We’ve always had that,” she said, “but more and more folks are requesting that number.”
She added: “There are a lot of feelings that folks are dealing with right now.”
By telephone Wednesday, Bill Braden said that when it became apparent that his wife would pass in the midst of the pandemic, he asked Bliley Funeral Home for a way to provide some sense of normalcy to her services. They worked with his clergy so the funeral at their church could be streamed live; Bliley officials then streamed the graveside service after at Hollywood Cemetery. Susan’s plot was close enough to the road in the cemetery that guests were invited to drive by and offer condolences from their car windows.
Several dozen cars snaked slowly along the road, stopping by the family to offer support as best they could from inside their vehicles.
One car had a sign taped in the window that read: “Bradens ... You’re gonna get SO MANY hugs soon!!!!”
“It was lovely to see them, but it still kind of added sadness on top of sadness,” Bill Braden said. “We would obviously prefer to hug and touch and do the human thing.”
The church service was the hardest.
Livestreaming the services was a mixed blessing, he said.
It’s not personal, but it has allowed more people to tune in and pay their respects, including all of the friends they made in other states where they lived before moving to Richmond 11 years ago. More than 1,400 people had viewed the services as of Friday. Many have sent notes and stories about Susan.
They’re a bright spot in an otherwise bleak situation.
“She touched a lot of people along her journey,” Bill Braden said about his wife, who was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma. She wasn’t expected to live more than a year, but lived another five and “she thrived during that time,” Bill Braden said. “We were given a wonderful gift by the medical community that took care of us.”
The bittersweet irony is that Susan Braden’s was a life colored by the arts; she was a singer, songwriter and performer, and in her last years, used her situation as the basis for “metastatic musical comedy” shows that she performed across eight states for others battling cancer.
“Our whole lives, Susan has been integral to the show,” Bill Braden said. It’s only fitting that her final act in this world — that her funeral and graveside services were streamed live to a remote audience — were the sorts of productions she would’ve enjoyed.
“It was a fitting tribute,” he said. “I think she would’ve loved the irony of it.”