Ryan Rabalais died of age-related health complications in April 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic.

With strict limits on gathering size in place, his family had no choice but to bury the 92-year-old patriarch without a funeral service. 

Like many who lost loved ones in the early days of COVID’s spread, Connie Tillman said the lack of ceremonial mourning robbed her of closure. 

“We felt cheated,” said Tillman, a Catholic. “My dad was so loving. He was a man of very few words. He wasn’t boisterous, but everybody loved him and they always knew he was a loyal, trustworthy person.”

So many people wanted to say their goodbyes, to embrace each other and reflect on his life, she said. But they couldn’t.

On Saturday, Tillman finally found some sense of closure at a church service for those who had to limit or forgo funeral gatherings over the past 18 months because of the pandemic. Scores of families joined Tillman for the evening memorial Mass at St. John the Baptist Parish in Zachary.

Father Jeffery Bayhi, who led the hour-long service, read the names of 68 people being memorialized.

“Our grief process has been interrupted,” he said. “When we lose a loved one, what we’re used to is having people come by, tell stories, cry with us. It doesn’t change anything, but it helps us a great deal.”

The vigil was followed by a reception in the parish activity center, where attendees had the chance to write sympathy notes and condolences for the bereaved. Families were also invited to bring photos of lost loved ones to display atop a purple table that stretched across each of the room’s four walls.

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Church spokeswoman Melany Roberts said the event was two months in the making and marked joint effort between St. John the Baptist and its sister congregation, Our Lady of Assumption in Clinton. 

“When the numbers dropped and things were going back to normal,” she said, “we were looking for a way to give the families who missed out on this opportunity a ‘welcome back.’”

People welcomed the idea. 

“We’ve had a lot of people saying ‘thank you for doing this,’” Roberts said.

Including Tillman, who said she was thrilled to find out about the event. On the evening of the vigil, she chose to celebrate her father by bringing a picture of him and her mother taken at the church a few years earlier. She laughed when recalling how much her father loved to have his picture taken.

“He was a ham,” she said.

Because his death took place just weeks after the pandemic began, Tillman said it was difficult for friends and family to fully comprehend why they weren’t able to pay their respects to her father in person. The coronavirus was still new. And everyone was still getting used to rules about distancing and mask-wearing. 

“I think a lot of people just didn’t understand,” Tillman reflected. “They just knew they couldn’t go. But how do you deal with saying goodbye when you can’t go and say goodbye?”

Email Elyse Carmosino at ecarmosino@theadvocate and follow her on Twitter @elysecarmosino