SHARON — The founder of his town’s high school football program, John Cosgrove Jr. was known for his unwavering vigor, rousing motivational speeches, and an enduring compassion for his least fortunate players.
Seated in a buffed oak pew in Our Lady of Sorrows Parish on a sweltering August day, his granddaughter, Jenna Cosgrove, yearned to hear his gravelly voice again.
It had been months since Cosgrove died of heart problems in March 2020, as the pandemic took hold. He was 85.
In his final days, his close-knit family could not visit him in the nursing home. They said goodbye from behind a window. At his burial in early April, only 10 relatives were allowed to attend, unable to comfort each other at his grave for fear of contagion.
Through months of isolation, public health restrictions, and gnawing grief, Jenna, 34, had waited for this day, when she could finally say goodbye and celebrate her beloved grandfather’s life.
The crowd was still thin as fears of the Delta variant swirled. But mourners sat shoulder-to-shoulder as Cosgrove’s son, Jack, fondly recalled stern lectures at the family dinner table, his no-nonsense demeanor, and his remarkable coaching feats.
Her grandfather deserved this, Jenna thought. She, like so many others in a time of wrenching loss, needed it.
At the outset of the pandemic in Massachusetts, just 10 people could attend graveside services. Until May, funeral home capacity was sharply limited.
But those restrictions have eased, and memorial services that were postponed by the pandemic, denying mourners the comfort of shared grief, have been held in growing numbers, funeral directors said. In recent weeks and months, many families like the Cosgroves have gathered in delayed remembrance, at last able to say goodbye together. The services have continued into the cooler weather.
“It’s ironic that just when we needed them most, our communal rituals for processing death were gone,” said David Barlow, a professor emeritus of psychology and psychiatry at Boston University.
Even for deaths from the early days of the pandemic, memorial services can still play a crucial role in the grieving process, Barlow said.
“There are rituals in every culture and every religion for dealing with death,” said Barlow, who founded BU’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. “They all have something in common — that being that the bereaved person has to face the death and experience the full range of the painful emotions. Even a year or two years later, that can be an integral part of the process.”
After the service in Sharon, family and friends retreated to a small day camp in Foxborough, under a canopy of towering pines. For hours, they traded memories over a spread of catered food and light beer. Some lingered over photo displays spanning decades of Cosgrove’s life — showing him in locker rooms, with the Rhode Island College women’s basketball team Jenna coaches, and at sports outings, often in his signature University of Maine windbreaker and baseball cap.
This time, hugs were plentiful. Like a family reunion, Jenna said, looking on with a smile. Her grandfather would have loved it.
“It felt like we got robbed when he died,” Jenna’s father, Michael Cosgrove, said. “So to have this after so long — it’s very fulfilling.”
For more than a year as the pandemic raged, many relatives chose to delay funeral services until they could gather safely. But since the summer, Lyons Funeral Home in Danvers has fielded a surge of requests for delayed ceremonies, hosting mourners at the funeral home, churches, parks, and cemeteries.
“We’re seeing people that [seem] very much together in the days before the delayed ceremony, and then the day of the funeral, the emotion seems just as raw as it would have in the days after the death,” said owner C.R. Lyons, who over the summer stepped down as president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association. “It really does seem to be helping them process their loss.”
When Michael Huddy’s father died in a nursing home in April 2020, there was no funeral at all. His ashes arrived in the mail a few weeks later, and Huddy tried his best to move forward.
But memories of his father, Charles, lingered in the isolation of the pandemic. Without a funeral, his grief hardened.
Charles had been a machinist, often embarking on new improvement projects around the two-family Malden home he bought with his wife, Cynthia, in 1980. Michael Huddy grew up there and moved back in 2014 to be closer to his parents.
In the year after his father’s death, he saw his imprint on the house at every turn. The walls he painted. The kitchen cabinet he built for Cynthia.
“There was no sense of closure at all,” Huddy said. “It really turned into this prolonged, what felt like never-ending, grieving process, because you’re reminded of it every day.”
In June, a small group finally gathered at the First Baptist Church of Malden, where Charles often volunteered, for a memorial. Some of Michael Huddy’s closest friends were there, including one who was known for showing up underdressed to formal occasions. But on this day, he wore a full suit. And for the first time, Huddy began to confront his loss.
“That may have been the first time this really felt real,” he said. “It was like, ‘Whoa, he’s really gone. This happened.’”
Rob Abisi’s father died in February, two months after he contracted COVID-19. Just 20 of his closest relatives and friends could attend the funeral in Dracut, a ceremony that left Abisi reeling, poring over childhood memories and through his father’s recent e-mails.
One message in particular haunted him — an e-mail from his father’s physician offering an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine. It arrived a few weeks after he died.
Abisi has agonized over that message and the circumstances of his father’s death. The pandemic summons the grief nearly every day.
“It’s just a constant reminder of how I lost my dad,” he said. “Every conversation, every news story just brings it back up. It never stops.”
His cousin suggested a celebration of his father’s life in hopes it might provide some closure. In mid-July, their family gathered at a Dracut restaurant, exchanging memories of Rob Abisi Sr., an avid boxing fan and fervent supporter of his son’s musical career.
The event was cathartic for the younger Rob, if more a beginning than an end.
“It was like, maybe a little of the healing process can finally begin,” he said.
Barlow points to a newly classified mental disorder called prolonged grief disorder, which can leave the bereaved chronically dazed, depressed, and struggling to process loss for months on end. A January study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management suggested that cases of the disorder are soaring during the pandemic, particularly among those who lost someone to COVID-19. In those instances, the bereaved are 27 percent more likely to be “functionally impaired” by acute grief, the study found.
As her grandfather’s memorial began to wind down, Jenna Cosgrove hustled back and forth, juggling conversations with old friends and requests from family members. But something still felt off.
Her family had meticulously planned this day for nearly a year and a half. But the loss still ached.
She spent the days after the memorial wishing her grandfather could have seen what they put on for him. Wishing his funeral had been what he deserved. In any other year, hundreds of people would have paid their respects.
“I wanted it to complete this sort of cycle I’ve been through, but so far at least, it didn’t,” Cosgrove said. “I just keep thinking that this has all been so unfair.”
She hopes peace may come with time. But she wonders how long until her days get easier. Until then, she’ll keeping holding onto his voice.