Saying Goodbye Without Saying Goodbye: Honoring the Deceased During COVID-19

Author: IAFF Staff

April 24, 2020

The tradition of honoring the deceased by their family, community and nation is so deeply ingrained in the fire service culture that, for many, the grieving process cannot begin without it. As a society, we have developed many ways to honor people we’ve lost. Hosting a wake, viewing, funeral service, a celebration of life or Shiva are just some of the ways we honor our loved ones. In the fire service, witnessing a badge presentation or bagpipers are sacred rituals that help express what cannot be said in words.

A cluster of lit candles

While each practice has nuance, each of these traditions share some common goals that are essential to the grieving process:

  1. Acknowledge the reality of the death
  2. Find meaning in the loss
  3. Express emotions caused by the loss
  4. Receive and give support
  5. Remember or honor the deceased
  6. Say goodbye to the deceased

Although it may seem impossible to achieve these goals without in-person gatherings, we must try. This means finding new ways to facilitate the grieving process. Every family, community, crew or department that has lost a loved one during the COVID-19 pandemic is faced with the same challenge. If you are among those who have lost someone you care about, consider how the person would have wanted you to honor their memory. Try these strategies to take care of yourself and facilitate the grieving process:

  • Acknowledge that this is hard. Losing someone you care about is already extremely difficult, while current circumstances only exacerbate the struggle. Give yourself permission to feel what you are feeling without judgment.
  • Maintain boundaries. Although we remain physically separated from others, in many ways our world has never been more connected. In the age of social media, texting and video chats, you may feel pressure to check in with others before you are ready. Take the private time you need to grieve.
  • Balance loss activities with healthy distraction. Loss activities that help you connect to your grief may include journaling or looking at old photos of the deceased. Activities such as exercise, cleaning, cooking or watching a good movie can also provide a healthy break from the intensity of your emotions.
  •  Write a letter to the deceased. If you feel like you never got to say goodbye to your loved one, consider writing a letter. If you did have the opportunity to say goodbye at a bedside or wake, what would you have said? Take your time with this exercise. Consider reading it aloud to someone you trust.
  •  Attend or host an online funeral service. While funeral services during the COVID-19 pandemic are typically only open to immediate family members, some families are adapting by using video platforms to livestream the service online. While a video funeral can leave much to be desired, some may find that witnessing the funeral in real time remains a meaningful experience.
  • Do something to honor the deceased. As a gesture of remembrance of the deceased, cook their favorite meal, watch their favorite movie or donate to their favorite cause. Consider telling other family and friends about your action. They will likely provide you encouragement and support.
  • Host an online celebration of life. Similar to an online funeral service, video platforms can be used to gather select family and friends to honor the deceased and provide encouragement to each other. Participants may choose to share stories, a picture or video.
  • Stay connected to family, friends and support. The simple act of hearing or seeing people who care about you can play an essential role in your healing. If you need more specific support, consider attending a grief support group online.

If you are struggling to process your grief and feel stuck, it may be time to ask for professional help. Telemental health services can be a great alternative to office- or facility-based counseling, especially during the era of COVID-19. See the IAFF Telemental Health Guide to learn more. For additional behavioral health COVID-19 resources, visit the behavioral health section of the IAFF COVID-19 website.

The IAFF Is Here for You

Another option for getting help is residential treatment. The IAFF Center of Excellence for Behavioral Treatment and Recovery is for IAFF members struggling with addiction, post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) and other co-occurring mental health problems.  The Center remains open to serve IAFF members, while continuously adapting patient screening, contact precautions and isolation protocols as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For the latest updates, behavioral health resources and IAFF guidelines for responding to COVID-19, visit www.iaff.org/coronavirus.

Outdoor IAFF Center of Excellence sign

Lauren Kosc, M.A., LCPC is a behavioral health specialist, clinician and blog writer for the International Association of Fire Fighters.

We can help. Call 240-545-5141 or

Get Help Now