Bereavement in the
Time of Covid
by Susan Baruch
My mother in law, Phyllis, died on the last day of Pesach of old age. We knew that it was coming and my husband and his sister were able to visit her in the home where she was living and say the things they needed and wanted to say.
We knew that the funeral would be limited to close family. We knew that there were ways to have a shiva on Zoom. But we didn’t know any more than that.
The United synangogue Burial staff were great.
They called us back soon after Yom Tov was over in response to the message we had left immediately after Yom Tov. They talked us through the process and told us that we should get in touch again once we had a copy of the green form from the Coroner.
Our Rabbi rang my husband, Richard, after Yom Tov also to offer welcome words of comfort and to explain that he was going to be at Bushey for another funeral the next day so would not be able to officiate at my mother in law’s funeral at Waltham Abbey.
But nobody offered us guidance about how to conduct the funeral and shiva without the usual formalities at this time. There was nothing on the US website.
We rang the Burial Society again the next morning, once the formalities were completed (including, unbelievably, the coroner sending us the wrong green form) and they were able to arrange the funeral for that afternoon at Waltham Abbey.
By a miracle, the Rabbi on duty at Waltham Abby was Rabbi Epstein, Rabbi at Southgate where we’d briefly been members and whom my husband knows well. We asked, somewhat tentatively, whether it would be possible for us to have a “Zoom” funeral, as our son in Israel and my mother in law’s 80 year old brother and his wife, who are self shielding, may want to attend. The lovely lady at the burial society said that Rabbi Epstein would sort all that out for us. And he did.
The service was outside. It was a beautiful day. The congrgation was small – just my sister in law, Debbie and her husband Jon, Richard, me and our daughter Hannah. But the virtual congregation was large and full of love and sympathy which was palpable, and made it easier for us all.
The Rabbi made it special. My sister in law spoke a Hesped she had prepared. Benjamin, our son, spoke a Hesped from Israel. The Rabbi said El Malei Rachamim. And it was over. Not what we would have chosen. But somehow, despite it all, we were surrounded by love and respect and that was very important.
We then discussed what we wanted to do about the shiva. Richard had tried to say kaddish for an unmarried aunt over the internet at the beginning of lockdown and found it to be a very unsatisfactory experience and one he did not want to repeat. He decided that he did not wish to have prayers over Zoom, but would prefer to pray on his own.
He was not sure if he wanted to have any sort of Zoom meeting. I encouraged him saying that there would be plenty of people out there who had known Phyllis and would like to hear about her and speak about her. He had not spoken at the funeral and may want to give a Hesped. I knew that I did and so did Hannah. But my final argument was the clincher.
I said to him that Judaism does not encourage you to hide away after a death. It prescribes that you open your house to the community and allow them to comfort you. You do not have to speak if you don’t want to. But you should allow your friends to show that they care.
Again there was no guidance about what we should do. So Debbie and Jon set up a zoom meeting every night and we sent invitations to everyone we thought would like to come and encouraged them to spread the word.
And it was amazing. We heard stories about Phyllis which we didn’t know. We shared her story with our friends and family. Unexpected people spoke. People said unexpected things. Just like an ordinary shiva.
But there were extraordinary things too. We had a couple of early nights so people from Israel could join us. And lots of them did, including our 3 month old grandson. Richard’s friend Stan from Los Angeles came.
Again this was not what we would have chosen but it was very special. It meant people could come who otherwise might not have been able to. And it meant that people could show their love and respect to Phyllis and to Richard, Debbie, Uncle Geoff and the rest of the family, some by speaking, others by being there. Every night was different. Every night was special.
And the final thing was the phone calls. Some people preferred to speak one to one. Some people came to the shiva and called as well. So many kind caring voices took the trouble to contact Richard and offer sympathy.
I know that the calls and the emails bring comfort in normal times.But at times like this when it’s easy to feel really alone, when you don’t get the comfort of a hug or a handshake at the funeral or the shiva, when you can’t say kaddish and take comfort from the sympathy of your fellow minyanites, then those things become truly essential.
So what did we learn?
Do as much as possible on zoom. Let people be there, you will not be a nuisance. You will find that they want to be there. They want to give you comfort, and they want you to tell them what they can do to help you.
Do what you feel comfortable with. Talk to your Rabbi about any halachic issues. You don’t have to have a service if you don’t want one. You don’t have to say prayers in public if you don’t want to. But I would encourage you to have a couple of zoom meetings instead of a shiva.
And finally, if you know someone who’s lost someone at this time, please don’t hold back. Make contact in any way that suits you. Take food and leave it on the doorstep. Because the bereaved person needs you now more than they or you can possibly know.