Holding one another while we weep; sitting shiva while sharing food and stories; allowing loved ones to cook for you, care for your kids and grieve with you; coming to synagogue to say Kaddish Yatom in a minyan of 10 or more people — all of the rituals that Jewish tradition teaches us to lean upon while in mourning are unavailable right now as we practice social distancing and safer-at-home procedures.
But our grief doesn’t know there is a global pandemic. Pain is pain, and loss is loss. And we, the living, are left seeking suitable ways to mark these difficult moments without the comfort of tradition.
How do you mourn when you are unable to say goodbye when you know a loved one is dying? Or unable to attend a funeral in person? How do you mourn when you are unable to have a shiva, pray with family and share stories of the loved one? Or when you’re unable even to be hugged by extended family and friends?
When traditional rituals are unavailable and impossible, and you have to resort to participating in funeral decisions via text message, how do you mourn?
It is important to face the reality that there are no good answers to these questions. We are in a time where we must accept that what we would like to do and what we would ordinarily do in times of death and mourning are not options. Our traditional rituals and comforts are not available to us when we are quarantining and keeping strict to our social distancing. So how do we manage?
We begin by considering: What is most important during this time? What do I need to make it to tomorrow knowing that I have done my best to honor my loved one, fulfill my family duty or fill the painful and persistent hole in my heart?
A snarky teenage response (or perhaps a brutally honest, deeply-felt response) would be, “to see my loved one again.” After acknowledging that the impossible cannot happen, consider what is most important. Is it finding a ritual to acknowledge this new, painful beginning? Is it finding a way to say goodbye? Is it seeking comfort from friends and family?
First, identify the most pressing individual need. Then, take action to find an out-of-the-box, COVID-safe way to fulfill that need.
Acknowledge nothing is sufficient: Losing a loved one is never easy. Certainly, the inability to share in the traditional rituals of loss exacerbate the feelings of that grief. You may feel that you need to grieve the rituals and traditions that are unavailable in addition to the loved one who has died. Acknowledging and naming that this, too, is a loss, may help to ease you through these additional feelings of grief.
Attend virtually: Participate in a family service, viewing, funeral, and/or shiva via Zoom, FaceTime or other social media platform. You will be able to “see” and imagine how things are unfolding. You will also be able to share in the prayers and ritual.
Share your thoughts and memories: Be vulnerable and share your feelings and eulogy on social media. Hold a virtual memorial where family and others can also share their memories. Consider creating a Facebook or other message board so that photos and memories can also be shared among a group of loved ones and extended family and friends.
Accept virtual condolences: Allow family and loved ones to express their condolences with a simple text or email.
Plan an event in the future: The current pandemic will end. Plan a time to travel to visit the grave of your loved one, to hold an unveiling, to see family and to have a memorial when such things are safe again.
Find ways to keep your loved one present in your life: Wear a favorite perfume. Keep pictures close by. Cook a favorite dinner. Tell a favorite joke. Re-read a favorite book. Create a memory or grief box that you can turn to when feeling particularly overwhelmed.
Even in these difficult and most extraordinary times, our basic human needs remain the same. By honoring the process of mourning and finding key ways to give love and honor to your loved one and the memories you shared, comfort in times of loss can still be found. JN
Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel.
Allison L. Kierman is the managing partner of Kierman Law, PLC, an Arizona estate planning and probate law firm based in Scottsdale, Arizona.