Six years ago, when I was being treated, briefly, for a form of leukemia, I joined the Women’s Cancer Resource Center, then in Oakland, California, and found a meditation group there that I attended for several years. Its facilitator, Sarah Puyans, died at the end of November, 2020 at 86. It was not Covid that took her, but the aftereffects of two serious falls.
She had many good and close friends as a meditator, dog lover, hiker and great cook. She also had the most beautifully coiffed silver hair, always perfectly in place, and elegance that brought style to the simplest T-shirt or brocade jacket. Her elegance was, no doubt, enhanced by her height, almost six feet.
Her large community of followers and friends arranged a Zoom memorial today. I had, of course, read about the challenges of having funerals or memorial services at all, and the challenges of trying to provide them on Zoom. But I was anxious to participate and to see how many of my fellow meditators would appear on screen.
The memorial was emceed by someone who had known Sarah for thirty years. At least half of the speakers, including her sister, had known her for that long or longer. As I perused the images of the attendees (postage stamp size as there were over 100), I looked for some of the women with whom I’d sat in silence in a darkened, comfortable room every Saturday. Only one that I remember was there.
However, I was struck by how many women (they weren’t all women, but mostly) I did know from other activities. My favorite yoga teacher was there. Several women from an interest group I facilitate at Osher Lifelong Learning were there. I was so pleased to see others whose lives had also been touched by Sarah. Seeing these women brought home the rule of six degrees of separation. Except here there were only one, or at most two, degrees of separation between me and others who knew and had loved Sarah.
I was also struck by how well organized the memorial was. A slide show featured some of Sarah’s drawings (she had taken art classes at Laney College after graduating from Stanford) and many photographs of her, her dogs, her sister and brother, and the fruits of her cooking. These spanned her whole adult life and graced many friends who enriched that life.
Different people provided different narrative about how they knew Sarah accompanied by many photographs of her and by her. I loved learning about the many parts of Sarah I had not known.
Many mourning families have had to find a ritual to celebrate the lives of their departed loved ones, and many have turned to Zoom rather than real rooms in real funeral homes where social distancing and minimum numbers of mourners are allowed.
Sara Li, a reporter for Insider, wrote in May of last year that “few words mark the bleakness of the Covid-19 era more than Zoom Funeral.” Yet, I did not feel bleak at all. I felt a bubbling up of emotion, certainly. But this emotion was mostly joy at seeing concrete images of a woman I only knew by one facet (of many) of her life. I did not feel distant from the other participants. On the contrary, I was glad to see so many who had made intimate connections with Sarah. I also felt able to grieve her loss.
I know that many have said that, because the ritual is mostly virtual now, they have no real sense of closure. Although I did not feel this way, I can imagine that her sister or her niece might have felt that. I’ve read and heard from funeral directors and clergy that leaving the door open to some in-person future ritual has given hope to close relatives and friends that they will be able to achieve that closure, perhaps even in this new year.