History and Our Ancestors Have So Much to Teach Us About Pandemics, Loss and Grief

The Psychology
7 min read

History and Our Ancestors Have So Much to Teach Us About Pandemics, Loss and Grief

Our Ancestors Have So Much to Teach Us About Pandemics, Loss and Grief
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Words by:

Tracey Wallace

Illustration by:

Words by:

Tracey Wallace



Dr. Candi Cann is a world-renowned researcher on death and grief cultural practices. She has written three books, teaches at Baylor University, and gives talks wherever she can.

Her goal is to help us all better understand the historical and modern cultural approaches to death and grief, so that we can pick and choose what is most helpful for each of us individually.

Because our grief and our death are two extremely personally and unavoidable life experiences.

We caught up with her on Instagram Live during the COVID-19 pandemic to understand how she is thinking about the current environment. It turns out, we all have a lot more in common with our ancestors now than maybe we ever did before.

Watch the IG Live session here, or read the transcript below.

Dani: Welcome, Dr. Cann! Can you give us a bit of background about you and your work?

Dr. Cann: Absolutely. I am Dr. Candi Cann, and I've written several books on grief and mourning, and different death customs from around the world.

My first one was Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century. That book really examined the intersection between death and technology including all the new things that we're doing on social media that are creating new kinds of customs and rituals.

My second book was Dying to Eat, which was a really fun one! Every chapter had a recipe and it was all about the ways that we use food to mourn the dead.

  • Protestants, for example, will have a big luncheon following a funeral and come together to think about and talk about the dead.
  • Jews will eat things that are round to remember eternal life and the cycle of life and death. So, they'll eat things like bagels or eggs, anything that's round in shape.
  • And then, you have Catholic customs like Dia de los Muertos, where people make an altar and honor the dead by actually feeding them their favorite foods and drinks.

My last book was an edited collection with 30 chapters from fantastic scholars all around the world examining the ways that we grieve in different countries, and things like virtual wakes in Brazil.

People there now go online and attend a wake as opposed to going in person, which is really pertinent to what we're having to do now in the COVID-19 era.

Dani: Are there ways people can incorporate new rituals into their social distancing and Shelter-in-Place lives?

Dr. Cann: That's a really important question. I would separate it into actually dying and then grieving.

So, there are a couple of things that people can do now. If you're separated from your loved ones, say they're in a nursing home and you can't visit them, or they're severely ill and you can't visit, you can do things like write letters.

You can send them mementos. You can be with them in this kind of old fashioned way.

I feel like a lot of people have forgotten the low tech ways that we can still be with our loved ones. Letters and cards are incredibly important and helpful.

A lot of hospitals and nursing homes, it depends on their policy, will allow you to bring it to the front and then they will get it to your loved ones. So, at least they'll have a card from you that they can read over and over while they're feeling isolated.

Another thing to do is to use a smart speaker like Alexa Home or the Amazon Dor or Echo. We have that and it's fantastic! It allows you to actually drop in on someone. So, if someone is at the nursing home or, say, in the ICU, if you set it up, you can actually communicate directly with them. You don't have to have a medical professional or nurse set up a connection or use an iPad or act as an intermediary with the phone.

I really recommend using these kinds of tools right now.

As far as grief goes, the first thing we're recommending is you don't have to have the memorial service now. You can wait until you can all come together.

I think a lot of people feel pressure to do it now, but you don't have to. You can wait until there's a better time when all of your family and friends can come together.

If you want to honor someone who has died in the meantime, I really like the low tech things that we can do.

  • You can save a place for them at the dinner table. You can have dinner with your loved ones even though they're no longer here. Just make a place for them!
  • You can pass around a sheet of paper at the dinner table with your family and have everyone write down one thing that they loved. Then, you can pass that on to the next family that's also sheltering in place and they can add to that list.

So, there's ways in which we can create family customs, like a chain of love, if you will, for the deceased that don't involve any technology at all.

Then, on the tech side, there are a lot of fantastic options. There are so many tools out there!

  • There’s Life360 with Alli.
  • There’s Michael's Death Over Dinner.

For a COVID-19 death specifically, there's a new website that's launching called Remember the Ninth. It's specifically for COVID-19 deaths, and there'll be honoring COVID-19 deaths every ninth of every month.

This is the thing: we're not alone. So, many people are going through this together. It's a good time to share that grief and talk about it.

Dani: What are the positives you think will come out of moving to more virtual memorial events?

Dr. Cann: The real positive is that now we have to acknowledge that death is an everyday part of life. I think that's the biggest one.

For me as a scholar, this may be totally counterintuitive, but I love thinking about history and thinking about the 1918 flu pandemic, or thinking about Scarlet fever and smallpox. What I mean is this moment in time is not unique.

We're not experiencing something unique. What's unique is that we thought we were invincible. We thought we had moved beyond this.

I actually find comfort that I'm going through the same experiences that all of humanity has gone through over and over and over again.

Now, it is slightly depressing at times, right? I mean, I don’t want to minimize the suffering.

I remember when I broke my wrist and I went to the hospital and they gave me a cast and I was like, "That's it? That's the best you've got? To just not move it for six weeks while it heals itself?"

This is kind of the same thing. This is the best we've got! We'll learn how to heal ourselves, and I find so much comfort in that.

I find so much comfort that now when I'm reading those classic novels and they're all like waiting inside because there's a big pandemic in their town, I'm like, "I get it. I know what you're going through. You're bored out of your mind and you don't have wifi."

We have wifi!

We have tools and technology. I mean, honestly, I feel so lucky to be going through this at this time. That's one of the biggest positives for me.

Dani: Are there any examples in your daily life where you’ve seen some silver linings?

Dr. Cann: Well, my sister actually has had COVID-19 for three weeks. She has turned a corner, but I'm just so thankful that I've been able to call and check on her every day.

My stepmom, of course, was really worried about her. So, we had a virtual dinner. I said, "Well, let's have dinner tonight at 6:00 PM," and we made dinner and then she got her dinner and then we took family photos of us with the iPad of her having dinner.

Seriously, we're so lucky that we can do this.

This is one of the other things I do want to point out: COVID-19 has been exceptionally brutal for people of color, for minorities, for those living in poverty, for the homeless.

I really think that it's important that we focus on our privilege and that we understand that many of us are operating in this pandemic in a very different way from those that are operating on a much more disadvantaged level.

I think it's really important to remember that.

And then, as much as we can to give back, to try and help those who are less fortunate and to reach out and to do what we can to see how we can fill those gaps and be there for those people.

Dani: Are there any resources or things that you'd want to point people to for death and grief in this time?

Dr. Cann: If I were to say any advice, it is don't forget the kids!

Kids are much more aware than you think they are.

  • Have conversations with them.
  • Explain to them what is happening.

There are some great resources out there also for children.

One of the other things I love is if your kid is trying to grieve someone who has died, and they play Minecraft, they can always build a little grave site for the person in Minecraft.

Gaming is a great way for kids to express themselves, especially during this period.

You can have a virtual funeral in a game!

You can build a place to honor them and remember them in Minecraft. I remember my stepmom used to like that farm game –– Farmville. So, on Mother's Day, I snuck onto her farm and made all these signs for her in Farmville.

We are at home and we have access to these tools, so really take advantage of them and try and figure out new, fun and creative ways to honor and remember the dead.

You're not alone –– not right now nor in history. We're reliving this experience of humanity over and over again.

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