How The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Upended The Most Difficult Part Of Life — Death

Mar 26, 2020

Terry Shockley remembers her mother, Patsy Hopper, as a strong person.

"She had to be.” she said. “She eventually had four children. We were a military family, so we were moving a lot. She had to do a lot of packing, a lot of organizing, a lot of discipline. My dad was busy with his career. She was strong.”    

A photo of Patsy Hopper.
Credit Courtesy of Hopper's family

Hopper and her husband moved to South Austin in the 1980s to be near Shockley, who was a single mother of two. After Shockley's dad died, her mom became a roommate and travel partner. 

“We went to England,” she said. “We made two trips to France, one to the Normandy-area, then to Provence. We went to Italy. We went to Vancouver several times. One of my brothers lives there.”     

In the last few months, Hopper entered a memory care facility. Then on March 13, the 93-year-old mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and travel buddy had a stroke and passed away.

As word of Hopper's death made it to other family members, a few things were clear: Travel restrictions and unease about the spread of the coronavirus were making one of the more difficult parts of life – a loved one's death – even more difficult. 

“The other relatives are unable to travel or choosing not to because it’s so questionable,” Shockley said. “One brother is in Canada. Of course, we know the situation with that. He can’t come across the border.”  

That prompted some relatives to ask Shockley's daughter Patty Crowe a difficult question.

“There’s a viewing and a burial this week,” Crowe said. “My aunt didn’t quite ask me – [could] never even get the words out. But I knew what she was saying: She wanted a photo or something of my grandmother for closure. They're not coming and we don’t expect a lot of people to show up for the viewing, given the circumstances.” 

Hopper's family is not alone. Memorial services across the country have been scaled back or put on hold until the pandemic has passed.

Funeral homes in Austin are categorized as essential businesses, but they still must comply with the local and statewide orders limiting gatherings. The funeral home asked that no more than 10 people enter the chapel at a time for Hopper's service.

Related | What You Can And Can't Do Under Austin's Stay-At-Home Order

“You know, death is always a difficult time for families,” Stuart King, general director at King Tears Mortuary in East Austin, said. “But this is our ministry, we comfort those, we show them love, compassion and help them out during a difficult time in their lives.”  

King is a third-generation funeral director. In all his years watching and now running the family business, he has never seen circumstances like this. And for anyone who has had a loved one die, the funeral is just the beginning of a lot of work to settle someone’s estate – all of which is likely to be slowed with closed government offices and stay-at-home orders.

“My concern now is the paperwork getting done by the State of Texas. Death certificates, will they be done on time?” King said. “The Office of Vital records closed down, so we can’t go down and pick up a death certificate. ... You cannot do a certified death certificate from your house.” 

Several things hinge on death certificates, like insurance payments or executions of wills.

Belinda Arambula is a partner at Burns, Anderson, Jury and Brenner, with a specialty in probate law. While family members wait, she says, there are little things they can do as a stopgap until society figures out how to move forward in the new – or at least current – “normal.”

Hopper died on March 13 at 93 years old.
Credit Courtesy of Hopper's family

“Things that are pending – such as mortgages or electric bills, things of that nature – the person anticipates that they’ll be the executor of the estate should put the banks or accounts on notice of the death,” she said.    

And while the coronavirus has temporarily stopped in-person hearings at Travis County’s Probate Court, an order was issued this week allowing hearings outside of a traditional setting.

“Judges – and this is not limited to probate court – but other judges are holding court from their houses with video conferencing,” Arambula said. "So, I think as time goes on what we’re going to see is a lot of accommodations made.”

Shockley is still working through her grief and paperwork.

“I’m trying to pace myself, but all the time there’s things going through my head that have to be done, need to be done," she said. “There’s a lot to do when someone passes away. And I don’t know if people really realize how much there is involved. So, I have to pull back and pace myself or I get too anxious with it all.”   

It's a skill she might have picked up being raised by a strong woman.

Got a tip? Email Jimmy Maas at jmaas@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @maasdinero.

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