Shannon Kolbjornsen is funeral services manager at in Whittier, California. Since the weeks following Thanksgiving, calls to the funeral home and cemetery have nearly doubled due to COVID-19 deaths. Staff and volunteers are working around the clock to give families the compassionate care they need. Here, Kolbjornsen shares a little of her experience in recent months.
I’m the person people turn to in the darkest hours of their lives, when they have lost someone they loved deeply, often unexpectedly. They are in shock, devastated and searching for a way to say goodbye. My role is to guide them in planning a memorial that tells the story of their loved one's life and help them begin to heal.
Each of us has been affected by the pandemic over the last year in one way or another, but the increase in deaths related to COVID-19 has strained funeral professionals beyond anything we have ever experienced. In California, where I work, the virus is raging. Along with the heroic medical professionals who continue to work tirelessly to treat extremely ill patients, my colleagues and I have been on the frontlines. We enter hospitals, eldercare facilities, morgues and private residences to take loved ones into our care and prepare them for cremation or burial. We've seen firsthand the toll this pandemic has taken on families.
When COVID-19 first started spreading through communities, many things in my profession changed almost overnight. As funeral homes adjusted services to meet health guidelines, most families were understanding. However, it was gut wrenching to tell a brokenhearted family they had to limit the number of guests at their loved one’s memorial to only a handful of people, when they would have preferred to be surrounded by scores of family and friends. What's more, social distancing is hard for those in the funeral profession.
We are huggers by nature, and suddenly we could no longer offer a grieving spouse or crying child a comforting embrace. That's been one of the most challenging things.
At the same time, we moved quickly to implement new technologies and find creative ways to continue to provide the very best care to families. Rose Hills Memorial Park & Mortuary serves a diverse community. Our families represent many different customs, traditions and faiths, and we work tirelessly to honor each family’s wishes. One thing we've done that families have really appreciated is moving all services outside. Tents have allowed families to hold socially distanced funerals and memorials with hundreds of guests, as well as clergy, music, mementos, flowers and more. It's been truly gratifying to find ways to continue to help families honor and celebrate their loved ones while keeping safety at the top of the list.
Caring for families, learning about their lives and creating heartfelt tributes to their loved ones means more to me than a paycheck ever could. Having the opportunity to give families meaningful moments during this pandemic outweighs any discomfort that has come with the temporary challenges we're facing right now. I look forward to the day when I can see the faces behind the masks, hold hands in solidarity and offer hugs of comfort to the people who trust me.