ASD Staff Reflect on Answering Calls During the Peak of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Originally Published on the myASD Blog
The peak of the COVID-19 pandemic was like a jarring car accident for many people who work in the funeral service professional. At the point of impact, everything became a disorienting and unsettling blur. Time seemed to move both too fast and too slow, forcing us to adjust our senses to a new reality that no longer resembled the world we knew.
For ASD Call Specialists, this emotional whiplash was repeated again and again. Many were forced to take one unspeakably tragic call after another, with very little time in between to recover their composure. It is only upon reflection that those difficult and traumatic moments we experienced throughout the month of April can be reconstructed in our memory with any sense of clarity.
Recently, we asked our staff to share some their memories from handling funeral home phone calls during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their stories reveal the devastating toll this virus unleashed on grieving family members as well as all those who were called to serve them. There is no question that all those who interacted with a family member who lost a loved one during the peak of the pandemic have a deeper understanding of the unimaginable scars this virus left in its wake.
For funeral directors who were on the front lines of this pandemic, we implore you to also share your stories with others as these upsetting memories should not repressed. As difficult as it may be to relive these traumatic events, there is real value in reflecting upon the past. We believe that opening up about what we all experienced, we can begin to heal and learn from this event as time moves forward.
7 ASD Call Specialists Open Up About Answering Calls During the COVID-19 Pandemic
“In the seven years that I have been taking death calls for ASD, none have affected me the way the COVID calls did. Hearing so much despair on a daily basis and not seeing an end in sight was horrifying. The one call that will probably be with me the rest of my life was from a 19-year-old girl from the Bronx. She spoke slowly and paused after every few words, not really sure what to say. Then she made her monotone statement, ‘I just lost my mom from the virus today. My brother too. My dad died yesterday. I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to do.’ Then the flood gates opened and she just sobbed, ‘I’m all alone and I don’t know what to do.’ And in that moment, I felt like I was betraying her and amplifying her grief by saying, ‘Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the funeral home is at capacity and we are unable to take on any new cases at this time.’ Thinking about it even now, about 6 weeks later, still makes me cry and I wonder if she was able to find someone to help her with the loss of her family. I never got her name, but I pray for her every day.” – ASD Client Solutions Specialist, Kristina Hartner, who has been a part of our team since 2013.
“The hardest part about it was turning families away in need when their loved ones passed and they were desperately looking for a funeral home. That put a lot of stress on us as some people didn’t want to hang up, looking for a glimmer of hope. On some calls, I took their information anyway just to give them that hope that they could be assisted and some I actually looked up other clients we answered for in the area to see if they could assist them in any way. Some days, I didn’t even want to log in but we were all they had and we all had to help.”-ASD Senior Call Specialist, Chris Bevilacqua, who has been a part of our team since 2003. Chris was one of four employees who handled the highest number of incoming calls during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I had a few calls that stuck with me, however the one that has stuck with me the most, is the call that I named: “The Pit.” The caller was a woman and I could hear the desperation in her voice as soon as the greeting ended. She had lost her loved one in death due to the Coronavirus. She wanted to know, if I could help. I told her I was very sorry for her loss and I paused and took a deep breath. As, I had already been prepared to relay the red box statement: ‘Unfortunately due to COVID-19 Pandemic the funeral home is not accepting any new cases.’ However before I began to speak, she started sobbing….she relayed that she has called several funeral homes and they couldn’t help her….then she added I don’t want him thrown in “The Pit!” I knew she was referring to the mass gravesite that individuals were being placed in when they could no longer be stored in the morgues.
Knowing that she had probably already heard the message I had to relay didn’t make it any less difficult. I again gave my condolences and delivered the message. I had many calls similar in nature in the following days, however none had hit the pit of my stomach like that one. During those difficult weeks, the support given by ASD management was priceless, the support of my coworkers was = exceptional. Everyone was willing to listen and offer words of encouragement, and the funeral directors that took a few seconds to acknowledge their appreciation were gracious.” -ASD Senior Call Specialist, Janel Francis, who has been a part of our team since 2016.
“I have been working for ASD for 13 years and I resigned after working for 22 years for Crozer-Keystone Health System because of the integrity, dedication and support ASD gives its employees! I have dealt with a lot of difficult and sad situations, but the Coronavirus Pandemic was the most overwhelming experience I had to deal with in my life. The call volume was extremely busy, the callers were desperate to get their loved ones into a funeral home and it was devastating to inform some families that some funeral homes were filled up to capacity.
ASD staff had to also become counselors, mediators, educators and at times consolers to alleviate some of the stress families were facing. As a Bilingual Call Specialist, I had the privileged of helping many Spanish-speaking families who didn’t speak English and explain to many families about the situation we were facing with this Pandemic and why some funeral home couldn’t help them. During a pandemic everyone is confused and stressed and being informed in your own language makes it much easier. I’m so thankful that I had the support and expertise from all my fellow Call Specialists, Supervisors, Managers, and ASD’s owners to assess the situation and do the best job that we could. Every day I put on my ASD cape and did the best that I could.” –ASD Bilingual Training Specialist, Myrna Russi, who has been a part of our team since 2006.
“Where to begin and where to end? This is time when uncertainty seems to be up in the air with that question as well. With the beginning and the ending out of the way, let us take a look at what it has been like being a guiding hand when “answering life’s most difficult calls” for ASD (Answering Service for Directors) during these ever-changing times.
First word in ASD: Answering. By golly, did we answer & answer & answer. Add in a wheelbarrow more answers and you might get the idea of half of all the calls we have taken since ASD began proactive measures to have everyone work from home (prior to any government mandates).
‘The funeral home is at capacity’ became a new normal for a minute; ‘How is the procession changing route in light of the protests?’ came next. We were there to answer 24/7, in the tradition of the carpenters turned “box makers” who’s industry was shaped by literal homes the community would come knocking at the door when someone passed, we were there to “answer that door”; in our case, modern lingo, answer the call. Personally, this left an impact when imagining all these families and community leaders, all coming to knock at the door of the funeral home at once.
This leads us to the second word in ASD: Service. When they “knock on the door” we must be the guiding hand, no matter what the day calls for. There were enough stories to write a piece about each so I will boil it down. These are some of the lessons learned from being a guiding hand to the Funeral Homes.
- Focus on common denominators when variables are in flux.
- What we do know and what we can do?
- Mourn every loss / count every victory.
- Let your voice be known. Many are looking for direction and yours might be the one that resonates.
- Individual Journeys moving forward, side by side.
- Finding strength when we can be unified holistically. The ongoing process of finding out what is most important to us.
Last word and the reason why we are here, Directors. Answering service FOR DIRECTORS. The wide range of clientele we have stretches across the United States into Canada, many impress me frequently and help set the tone with how selflessly they have served their communities through these times. They help guide families and those communities, even as we face a wide variety of causes that we can each find solutions for walking forward side by side.-ASD Training Specialist, Salvatore Monastra, who has been a part of our team since 2018. Salvatore was one of four employees who worked the most number of hours during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There were many emotional calls, but one that still gets me every time I think of it was a nurse calling from a nursing home who broke down crying at end of call because the family could not be there for the patient when he passed. It also hits home because my father is in a nursing home and is COVID Positive but thank God has been asymptomatic the entire time. Knowing we can’t be there with him is the most difficult part.”-ASD Training Specialist, Barbara Friskey, who has been a part of our team since 2007.
“Looking back now more than a month later, I still tear up when I think about answering calls during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. I can still hear the reactions of grieving family members from me telling them that I cannot help them. While some would respond with an onslaught of questions I was unable to answer, others would react with a sigh of resignation. It wasn’t hard to tell they had been trying for some time to find someone to take care of their loved one without any success. I think about these families often and the immeasurable weight of their grief. Losing someone you love is the most difficult thing we must endure, and to have that pain multiplied by the COVID-19 pandemic is truly heartache on another level.
As we move further away from those difficult weeks during the peak of the pandemic, the memory of it still remains etched in our hearts. Many articles and editorials have examined how, because so many of the deaths occurred out-of-sight, our nation has failed to observe the collective grief and national mourning associated with mass casualty events. For many, the lives lost have become just numbers, void of meaning, and the enormity of the pandemic death toll has not resonated. This is exacerbated by the fact that we cannot gather together to mourn our losses, so we are not seeing displays of shared grief or the outpouring of support. While the reality may not have set in for many, those of us that have actually talked to these grieving families feel a weight of responsibility to remind others what has been lost. For us here at ASD, we will always remember.” – ASD Public Relations Specialist, Jessica Farren, who has been a part of our team since 2003.
You never know what situation you may encounter as an ASD Call Specialist. It’s not lip service to say that our staff truly does handle life’s most difficult calls. Sometimes, these telephone interactions remain etched in minds long after the line disconnects. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, our staff was handling what felt like an endless number of calls from devastated and frightened family members. While we could not provide families with the same reassurance we could in the past, our staff remained committed to ensuring every caller received their undivided attention, care and compassion. Whether we’re taking a message or just providing a listening ear to someone who needs it, we always try to ensure that every person we speak with feels a little better about their situation by the time they hang up.