The coronavirus forces North Fork families to mourn loved ones in different ways

For more than 100 years, Frank Zaneski lived what might be described as an archetypical North Fork life.

Born in Cutchogue and raised in Jamesport, the Mattituck man was married to his wife, Mary, for 65 years, had a child here and watched his three grandchildren grow up to make him a great-granddad five times over.

Mr. Zaneski’s son, Ray, described him as a “hard worker,” who kept a job until he was 88 years old. A look at his résumé confirms this to be true. He worked as a bayman, a potato farmer and a truck driver early in life, before beginning a career as a custodian with the Suffolk County courts. Later in life, he was a caretaker for a private estate on New Suffolk Avenue.

Hard of hearing and a widower, Mr. Zaneski spent the end of his life at San Simeon by the Sound Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Greenport.

It was there that Ray Zaneski, a retired Mattituck schoolteacher, had hoped to visit his dad earlier this month. When his son showed up, Mr. Zaneski was in physical therapy, and so he was told to return in an hour. But when he arrived back at San Simeon, the younger Mr. Zaneski learned that because of the coronavirus, no more visitors would be allowed into the facility. Neither Ray nor Frank had been affected by COVID-19, but nursing homes and hospitals across the region have been forced to take proactive measures against its spread.

Mr. Zaneski at his 100th birthday party last year. (Credit: Zaneski Family)

The next time Ray would see his dad would be about two weeks later at DeFriest-Grattan Funeral Home in Mattituck, where he and his wife, Christine, were the only two people permitted to pay their respects, due to the lingering threat of the pandemic. Mr. Zaneski’s last surviving sibling, Isadore, 89, of Islip, had to stay home.

In recent weeks, the Zaneskis are one of many families on the North Fork — and across the globe — to lose both a loved one and the chance to say a traditional goodbye.

“It was pretty surreal,” Ray Zaneski said of the small funeral, which included a trip past his dad’s house and a prayer by a deacon from St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church in Riverhead, before the burial at Sacred Heart R.C. Cemetery in Cutchogue. “It’s something you just can’t believe.”

But it’s a reality more and more families are being forced to come to grips with. 

Karen Heppner of McLaughlin Heppner Funeral Home in Riverhead and Coster-Heppner Funeral Home in Cutchogue has been busy explaining to families what options they have are left.

As of last Friday, those options were limited to direct cremation or direct burial — straight to the crematory or cemetery. Open casket viewings are still available for immediate family, as per guidelines from the New York State Funeral Directors Association. Ms. Heppner said they were following the current guidelines to limit viewings, including one they held Friday morning, to fewer than 10 people at a time.

She’s been trying to shift the focus to what people may be able to do down the road.

“It has really put a crimp on what is customary and traditional,” she said. “When do families get together? Weddings and funerals — and both of them have been eliminated from the equation at this point,” she said, adding that with a funeral, other issues are factors. “Grief comes into play — the five stages of grief which people would be entering into are delayed, they’re inhibited,” she said. “They’re changed in a way that people don’t know how to handle because we haven’t had a pandemic in our lifetime. Emotions are all over the place — but people are doing the best they can.”

A majority of the obituaries published in The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review since mid-March make note of the extraordinary circumstances. They include language like “once things are back to normal” or “given the unusual times.”

In the case of one Greenport man, the family will wait to spread his ashes at sea until they can host a private memorial service, as he had requested. It will be in June or July, his family said, unable to be more specific.

Ms. Heppner said she expects to see a lot more celebrations of life, memorials and memorial masses as well as informal family gatherings — think backyard barbecues with picture boards of the person who passed away.

  “I think that’s a great idea to get together and memorialize someone,” she said, when it’s all over.

For many families who have lost loved ones in recent weeks, due to both the coronavirus and other natural causes, the final days of life have been the most challenging.

Donna Watkins of Greenport was one of the lucky few who got to enjoy one last special moment before losing her mother, Josephine Watkins-Johnson, 99, on March 12. Three days earlier she was visiting her mom at Peconic Landing in Greenport, when the community went on lockdown due to the coronavirus. She was able to watch as Garret Johnson, pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, sang to her mother. 

“He sang ‘Precious Lord’ to her, and my mother was smiling,” Ms. Watkins said.

Others have not been as fortunate.

“This has been a very difficult part of this,” said Paul Connor, chief administrative officer at Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport. “Our practice has been to do this on a case-by-case basis. We have had people pass and allowed a wife or husband or one loved one there. But only one person. We consult with our medical and nursing staff. If one loved one wants to be there when a person passes, that person is put in personal protective equipment. That’s the only way to make it work for the loved one.”

For the Zaneskis, that final visit couldn’t be arranged at San Simeon, where visitor restrictions were paramount to protect the health of the facility’s vulnerable population. Because he was hearing impaired, Mr. Zaneski was also unable to receive phone calls.

His only son still called to check in on his dad.

“There were times he was asking for me,” Ray Zaneski said. “We don’t really know if he fully knew what was going on.”

Frank Zaneski was three months shy of his 101st birthday. He’s buried in the very back row at Sacred Heart, where more of his family members hope to visit soon. Once things are back to normal.

With reporting from Bob Liepa and Steve Wick