‘She passed completely alone’: FEMA helps grieving families with COVID-19 funeral expenses

SPOKANE, Wash. — COVID-19 was unexpected and the loss of life maybe even more so. It forced families to say goodbye at a time when we needed each other most. To offset funeral costs, FEMA is offering to help with the bill.

Rebekah Heath, funeral director at Heritage Funeral Home, knows a thing or two about death and the families left behind.

“A lot of family members were alone when they passed because a lot in the beginning, the lockdown was so locked down,” Heath said.

Heath worked in Walla Walla as a funeral director for most of the pandemic. Funerals were smaller and even virtual. Heath said at cemeteries you could not be part of the graveside service.

“They were asking you to stay in your car and watch us lay your loved one to rest,” she explained. “Not having parameters on how they had to experience grief. That was the biggest difference — telling them what they could and couldn’t do.”

Another thing we could not do: say goodbye with a hug, touch or a kiss.

“Nobody was allowed to see her. She passed completely alone so that was really, really hard,” Heath said.

Her mom, Olga, walked into a clinic about two weeks after she and Heath’s dad tested positive for COVID.

When Olga was still feeling sick, she drove herself to a Walla Walla clinic.

“We didn’t get to see her after she walked into the clinic after that,” Heath said. “She was already fairly weak. She had a rare form of Parkinson’s on top of her COVID.”

Olga was admitted to a Walla Walla hospital before going to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland about a week later.

“They allowed 15 minutes for people, two at a time and that was it, through a glass window,” Heath said. “Just know how sorry we are that she’s alone so that was hard. Just praying and loving on her as best as we could from afar.”

An hour later her mom was gone at 58-years-old.

“We hadn’t got to see her or hold her or touch her in over two weeks,” Heath said.

The 27-year-old made the hard choice of being her mom’s funeral director.

“If anyone was going to get to be the first one to take care of her, I wanted it to be me,” Heath said. “I just got to hold her and cry and tell her I would take good care of her.”

Heath laid her mom to rest in Walla Walla next to Heath’s brother, Matthew. He died when she was 14-years-old.

“That’s when the grief and the pain and the realization that she’s gone was seeing her casket out there,” Heath said.

She moved to Spokane two months later in February 2021. Heath became the funeral director at Heritage Funeral Home. She started helping families emotionally and financially through FEMA’s COVID-19 funeral assistance.

If approved, FEMA would pay up to $9,000 in COVID-19 funeral expenses.

“They’re just trying to give back,” Heath said. “Mine’s still in a pending status so I don’t know if it’ll do anything, but that’s money that’s gonna be used to help.”

Families have to provide documents to FEMA such as the death certificate, receipts for funeral expenses and more. Heath said every funeral home can give you many of these papers.

“If you could take an hour or two out of your day, the least you could do is apply and see if they can help you,” Heath said.

While FEMA said you can call to apply, Heath said she did it online.

Today, Heath continues to comfort families going through their own loss.

“Getting to do my job every day is getting to help that family in a way that nobody else really can,” she said.

At the same time, she is reflecting on her own.

“Losing my mom, even outside COVID, reminded me like the compassion it is to be in that room,” Heath said. “This time I’m just allowing myself to be broken when I’m broken and just to be ok when I’m ok.”

To learn more about how to apply for FEMA’s COVID funeral assistance, click here.