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Coronavirus restrictions alter funeral plans, leaving some Texans to grieve alone

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Julia and Helen Spencer visited Wellesley College in 2004. It was Julia’s 15th class reunion and Helen’s 50th. Helen had a fan of Mona Lisa because the movie "Mona Lisa Smile" was set at Wellesley in 1953-54, her senior year at the school. Courtesy of Julia Spencer

Four weeks ago, Julia Spencer woke up in her Los Angeles apartment to a 6 a.m. call from Austin’s Barton Hills Assisted Living facility. Her mother, Helen Spencer, had died at the age of 87. Five days later, she learned her mother had contracted the coronavirus.

The loss of Spencer’s mother across the country was made all the worse by being robbed of the opportunity to properly say goodbye. There would be no funeral to celebrate her life surrounded by those who loved her — Spencer’s brother, who lives in Austin; alumni from Wellesley College, the alma mater of both Spencer and her mother; and former students and colleagues from St. Michael’s Episcopal School in Bryan, which Helen Spencer co-founded in 1972 with her husband, James Spencer.

“My neighbors in my apartment have given me flowers and brought me tea and made soup for me, but it’s different from being surrounded by friends and family that you’ve known for 50 years,” Julia Spencer said. “It just feels very lonely.”

Texas, like many states, had restricted gatherings to 10 people in response to the coronavirus pandemic, so Spencer couldn’t have the send-off she had imagined for her mother. Confined to her apartment a thousand miles away, Spencer has had to grieve largely alone. And without the closure that a traditional funeral brings, she’s been left in emotional limbo.

As people continue to die in the state — from COVID-19 and other causes — more families will be forced to make difficult choices about how they say goodbye to loved ones when people are discouraged from gathering in groups.

In accordance with state rules, funeral homes in Texas have been offering alternative services, like small, in-person funerals that can be livestreamed for those unable to attend, as well as immediate burial or cremation coupled with postponed memorial services to be conducted after restrictions on capacity are lifted.

Another option is holding multiple smaller services so everyone who wants to can attend, said Harvey Hilderbran, executive director of the Texas Funeral Directors Association.

Like most businesses, funeral homes have taken a financial hit. Many families are opting for simpler services or postponing them altogether, said Charles Villaseñor II, the director of Mission Funeral Homes in Austin.

“As a company, we're going to make less money. There's no doubt about it,” Villaseñor said. “But funeral homes, we always have the long-term view, and our scale of economy is long term. So there will be dips and there will be bumps, but right now … we want to continue to help people. And if they have no money, we’re going to figure out a way to help them.”

The state’s limits on gatherings expired April 30, and Gov. Greg Abbott clarified Tuesday that funerals and weddings will now be held to the same standards as activities in churches and other houses of worship. This means larger funeral and memorial services can be held as long as venues adhere to social distancing guidelines, such as leaving every other row empty and keeping people from different households 6 feet apart. Still, Abbott said, officials “strongly encourage at-risk populations to try to watch or participate remotely,” referring specifically to people 65 and older.

Some funeral homes, like Villaseñor’s, are erring on the side of caution and implementing more stringent capacity restrictions. Churches and cemeteries are also trying to determine how many people they can accommodate in response to the governor’s new directive.

“Unfortunately this means that you may be in a situation where you can have 30 people at visitation, 10 at the church, and 20 at the cemetery for example,” Villaseñor wrote in a recent email to his staff.

For Spencer, this doesn’t change much. She said Texas’ loosening of restrictions is premature, given the climbing case count.

“I have no intention of having an in-person service until it’s safe for people over 60 to be out and about,” Spencer said. Anyway, a service for her mother would “draw people from all over the country” and even internationally, she said, because some old family friends live in places like Mexico and Argentina.

“If you can’t hug anyone or shake their hand, what’s the point of having anyone physically attend?” she added.

Because of Texas’ regulations and her mother's positive COVID-19 test, Spencer’s end-of-life plans for her mother have had to change. Like her husband, who died of multiple sclerosis in 2000, Spencer's mother wanted her body to be donated to science so researchers could learn more about Bing-Neel syndrome, a rare form of blood cancer she had. But because she died of an infectious disease, that’s no longer possible. Instead, Spencer had to settle for just a cremation, no funeral.

Spencer had been conflicted about whether to visit her mother after the coronavirus pandemic began grinding the country to a halt. Ultimately, she decided it was too risky, and in early March, the facility stopped allowing visitors altogether.

One Saturday in early April, her brother Jamie called out of the blue: Their mother had been placed on the “actively dying” list. On Monday, Spencer was finally able to get in contact with the facility, who let her speak to her mother.

“It was kind of a one-way conversation,” Spencer said of the call. “I told her that I loved her and that I knew that she loved me, and thank you for everything that she did for me. I thought, that's probably very likely the last time I will talk to her.”

It was. By Wednesday morning, her mother was gone.

For now, the memorial service is on hold until “AC: after coronavirus,” Spencer said. But it’s unclear when “AC” will arrive, and Spencer said she’s worried many potential attendees may not be able to participate when the time comes.

“I think that most of the people my age will be there, or, you know, or my mom's more recent students,” she said. “But I'm just worried that people … in their 70s and 80s, I don't know if they'll be able to be there, or if the risk will still be so great that they will be advised to stay home ... and honestly I don't know if I'll ever see them again.”

In the interim, Spencer said she is considering a Zoom get-together, but most plans on the video-conferencing platform only allow for 100 participants. After decades at St. Michael’s as a teacher and later as head of school, she said her mother touched “generations” of students — including Bryan Mayor Andrew Nelson — not to mention countless colleagues and friends.

Caryn Morris, a medical assistant from Houston, has been facing the same dilemma since her mother, Patricia Kershaw, 71, died from complications of endometrial cancer March 24. Morris planned to take her mother’s body to Louisiana, where Kershaw is originally from and where her extended family still lives. But because Louisiana was not allowing funerals at all, Morris wasn’t able to; instead, she proceeded with cremation alone.

“I believe in tradition. I believe laying someone to rest properly. I believe it sends their soul to heaven to give a proper sendoff,” Morris said. “I wish that it would’ve been a proper goodbye so that I can sleep at night.”

Like Spencer, Morris plans to hold an in-person service for her mother in the future. But because friends and family had a makeshift memorial on Facebook, she’s worried that everyone will move on.

“I just feel like people think that ... they’ve already said their goodbyes, and it would almost reopen old wounds,” Morris said. “Kind of like, ‘I’ve already done it. I’m not going to go through it again.’”

While it’s no replacement for communing in person, video chatting and livestreaming are the closest many have to the real thing as long as people are still afraid to leave their homes and are subject to travel restrictions. So the Friday after her mother died, Spencer took to Facebook Live to share the news, reflect on her mother’s life and seek comfort from the over 200 who tuned in.

“I feel like so much of who I am is due to my parents, and my mom, and her moral courage, and her strength and her tirelessness,” she said on her apartment’s patio as the sun set behind her. “I can never live up to who she was and what she did, but she was a strong Wellesley woman, and she made me who I am today.”

Hearts sent by viewers floated across the screen, and comments poured in as friends gave their condolences.

“I just want to say hug your family and your friends tonight and love them, even if they’re infuriating, because you will be missing them so much soon.”

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