Who are the Last Responders?
Last week I was on a Zoom call with a last responder, specifically a funeral director whose job has been redefined by the COVID-19 pandemic. She shared with me her experiences over the last several weeks caring for families. Like many of us, her job description and working conditions have changed with safety regulations and social distancing as well as the sheer number of families needing their services on a daily basis.
The demand of last responders has changed dramatically since February – no longer is there a playbook or guideline for serving families. Navigating the new normal for last responders requires thinking out of the box (literally), being creative in transporting and storing a beloved family member, and conducting funerals virtually while safely interacting with families. In reality, last responders rely on natural instinct and unique problem solving skills to support families in meaningful ways by adding a personal touch.
The sheer volume of deaths associated with COVID-19, compounded by safety concerns for last responders, has created a stream of challenges that are extremely complicated and not easily resolved. As a society, we are horrified by the news of a mass grave in NYC, the refrigerator trucks parked behind hospitals and the images of white tents with body bags. I commend those who have quickly addressed the need to maintain the dignity of the deceased until they could be properly returned to their families. The solemnity of those who have passed is managed by these last responders – a specialized group of individuals who in America are caring for 86,000+ people (number of deaths when this blog was written) in a very short period of time.
As this crisis unfolded, we developed an appreciation and a true sense of awe as first responders and those on the frontline of the pandemic put others’ safety and wellbeing ahead of themselves and their families. We also witnessed the bravery of other essential employees, those who went out of their homes each day to ensure that the grocery shelves were stocked with food and critical needs, that mass transportation was available, that our packages were delivered to our front steps, that our kids continued schooling at home, and that our most essential needs were being produced at farms and factories.
I therefore was compelled to also shine a light on the efforts of last responders, the people who interact with hospitals, transporters, morgues, and families. Forced to work within government constraints regarding travel and gathering restrictions, these individuals are compelled to step in and personally assist with end-of-life rituals. This is similar to how doctors and nurses have stepped in to provide loving support to those in an ICU as family members were prohibited to visit their loved ones. Although one might consider last responders part of the first responder / essential worker community, not much has been shared about their true contribution. In speaking with doctors and nurses who have cared for the ill, they share that last responders are an integral part of their community, right there for the next phase of loving care when a patient passes away. These next set of hands will transport the beloved, prepare the body for burial, assist in funeral arrangements and in many cases, represent family members unable to travel due to restrictions or due to gathering restrictions.
My first-hand experience of the new (and hopefully temporary) normal occurred in April when my husband and I attended an untimely funeral in support of a friend whose family was unable to attend the funeral as they lived outside of Denver. The death occurred out of state, which necessitated air transport of the casket, ground transportation to the cemetery, and marshalling a small, intimate 10-person gathering with a virtual eulogy. All of this was only possible due to the support of last responders. My heart was heavy for my friend who had experienced such a traumatic loss and desperately needed a personal hug from her family. My heart was also very heavy for the workers at the cemetery, clergy and funeral director as they were obligated to experience an uncustomary setting.
I have read many warm and endearing articles about last responders as they provide support for the families they serve. Whether they add a rose to each casket, provide added touches for a graveside family tradition, record the funeral electronically to distribute to family members who could not attend, set up virtual transmission of the service, provide an “airhug” or to fulfill any other family needs, they are present and available to provide as much emotional support for the family as possible.
A last responder has the ability to muster the courage to squelch their own fears and anxieties about the pandemic to support the families they serve. They are unsung heroes that have emerged during the worldwide crisis working in conditions of silence, no machines buzzing, no one talking and just being with another human being in silence. Similar to first responders and frontline workers, they work 24/7, risk their health, quarantine from their families and endure unimaginable circumstances. Let’s provide them with a community shout out, a meal and when the time is right again, a real hug.
Rachel Kodanaz is a heart-minded professional helping her audiences to Embrace Life’s Challenges. Rachel has been speaking passionately to national audiences of all sizes for over 20 years, addressing all aspects of change, growth, and acceptance that comes with life’s transitions. Her style inspires, informs and persuades audiences to be self-aware, take action, and continue to thrive.
Rachel has published numerous articles and has appeared on Good Morning America. Her published books Finding Peace, One Piece at a Time, best-selling Living with Loss One Day at a Time, and Grief in the Workplace have received international acclaim. Learn more at rachelkodanaz.com