Mourning Loss in the Age of Covid – A Broader View

Mourning Loss in the Age of Covid – A Broader View

By Rabbi Joseph S. Ozarowski

I put down the phone after a long and intense day at the hospital that I serve part time:  By phone, I comforted a recovering but lonely elderly Jewish woman who had been diagnosed for Covid and whose family could not visit her.  By phone, I prayed with the family of a young Latino man who was intubated and sedated because of Covid.  This family told me of their frustration not being able to see their loved one and not being able to be at the hospital to obtain information.  They did not speak English, and I had to use the language interpretive line to offer them comfort as well as to pray with them.  I spent time in the lobby with a family upset about not being to visit and not getting information about their loved one. I had to work hard to maintain my social distance, and they were not wearing masks.

When I finished, I let out a long and audible sigh.  I did not feel like I was fully trained to do this.  How could I offer presence and support when I could not even see my patients or their families? What has happened to my profession, based on presence and empathy, when we cannot be physically present?  What have we lost through these months of Coronavirus?

Our lives have been turned upside down during this pandemic in one way or another.  We have missed or adapted to life events such as Jewish holidays, weddings, graduations and funerals. Many of us are still trying to process our experiences. We are reflecting not only personally but as a nation, as a culture and specifically in the Jewish community.

As we try to make sense of all this, we may find an underlying theme:  Loss.  Not just the obvious loss of life.  But also loss of the way of life which we have known for some time - the ability to socialize freely, the mobility to travel, to see loved ones who live at a distance or even just a few blocks away.  Economic losses such as loss of income and jobs. Loss of our ability to spend leisure or hobby time, such as sports or movies.  We ought to acknowledge the other losses as well.  Working through loss is one way to move towards hope.

Perhaps we can use some of the rich Jewish tradition of mourning loss as a framework to look at and maybe understand what we are experiencing.

Aninut: In Shock

In Jewish tradition, the first stage of loss is hearing about the death of a friend or loved one. We are often in shock or disbelief, even if it was expected.   Routines are suspended, calls are made, all while we shake our heads over and over, saying, “I still can’t believe it’s real.” The numbness sets in. We cascade, in free fall, into a new time and space.  In Jewish tradition, this pre-burial time is called the period of Aninut. 

If one researches the Hebrew letters in the root word for Aninut – Alef, Vav, Nun - one can find versions of this root that reflect the various aspects of grief that a mourner experiences at different points along the grief journey. Pleas, questioning, lament, elegy, complaint, doubt, accusation, sorrow, grieving, trouble, oppression, a cry of pain are all part of the linguistic root of the word.[i]

According to Halacha (Jewish Law), during the period of Aninut, the "pre-mourner" is exempt from positive time-bound commandments. No davening/formal prayer, no tallit or tefillin, no brachot/blessings before food or mitzvot.  The pre-mourner is often caught up in the details of making funeral arrangements and arranging for burial, precluding the performance of these mitzvot. This can also be seen as an inappropriate time for praising God (as taught by Rav Soloveitchik in several places, specifically his eulogy for his machateniste, the Talner Rebbetzin, published in the 1970s).  The structure of religious life is loosened. 

Generally, Aninut has an end which comes soon after the death – the funeral service and burial.  While there is no specific timeline, it is generally accepted that the service takes place as soon as possible after death. Aninut then leads to Shiva, the seven-day post-funeral mourning period.  In many ways, our current situation feels like Aninut.   An international pandemic may not have been expected and has thrown off our sense of routine. The key difference is that this Aninut has lasted months.  It still does not seem to have a specific point at which we can talk about transitioning to mourning our losses. It gets better and then it gets worse; it leaves us “Covid-fatigued” and the effects differ from place to place.   It feels like an Aninut without an end.

Wisdom of Shiva

Shiva offers us structure at a time when structure has been ripped away. Having prayer services and kaddish at the mourner’s home, various restrictions on entertainment, grooming, leather footwear and more gives mourners a matrix. It does not tell them how to feel, but rather gives life an outline and a focus into which mourners can pour their feelings.

With so many changes due to Covid-19, structure during these times has been supportive to many.  I have found for myself, that some  structure in my life has been helpful as I work from my house, sharing the router with my wife who is trying to teach three year-olds via Zoom while I am running meetings and providing comfort to others via Zoom.  My prayer and Torah Study practice, my general meal schedule and routine, being able to walk two miles almost every day, all have helped me navigate these uncharted waters. 

Synagogue attendance – Shabbat and daily - has been an important part of my spiritual structure.  But all our synagogues were closed for many months, and many either still are or are operating on a limited basis.  I had to invent my own substitute spiritual structure within Halacha/Jewish Law.  When I was home for Shabbat, I found myself in prayer, singing most of the same tunes I would have sung had I been in shul.  On Friday nights, I sang and danced with myself, trying to create the sense of joy that Shabbat is supposed to bring.  While it may in some sense have been better with other people, I have found that I could still enter that wondrous world of rest and joy we call Shabbat by myself. 

Connection in the Age of Social Distancing

How does social isolation of Covid 19 make us feel?  Lonely? Isolated?  Abandoned?  And how do we cope with those feelings?

The model of shiva can guide us as well on connection. While it is possible to sit shiva at home alone (and some people do, by choice or due to simply being alone), the healing of shiva best takes place when visitors come to the mourner’s home and listen. 

In order to stay safe and not being able to travel, we have invented Zoom Shivas.  I had the opportunity to participate in two Zoom shivas for members connected to my previous congregation in Long Island. Likely I would not have even attended these shiva gatherings in person due to distance. But, with a couple of keystrokes, there I was on the screen with other participants. It felt strange at first, not being in the same room. But I realized both times that I was in a virtual room, and the conversations went the way of most shiva conversations – laughter, tears, stories, memory and connection through community (albeit virtual).  The electronic shivas did what shivas are supposed to do, bring healing. 

Much critique of high tech has centered on its ability to keep us separated and apart.  But in our current world of social distancing, we have learned that virtual meetings, services, classes, shiva and mourning, tech linkage is a key modality for developing and maintaining connection. 

Telling the Stories

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 46b-47a) discusses whether hesped – often translated as eulogizing, but more broadly rendered as “story-telling” - is for the sake of the living or for the dead.  The question is never fully resolved, suggesting that it is both.  Beyond the eulogizing at the funeral service or the grave, storytelling is an integral part of the shiva observance. Part of the healing shiva process is sharing memories, cracking a smile and shedding a tear (often in the same breath), recalling the qualities of the loved one.  All of this is in the presence of compassionate visitors.  Healthy grieving involves integrating those memories into life as we slowly move forward.  Even in the age of virtual almost everything, it is vital that we find outlets for telling our stories of loss and how we are enduring this period of bereavement.  In the many on-line support groups that I have facilitated over these last months, I have heard stories of struggle and difficulty, but also of generosity and strength.  One social worker thanked me for just listening via zoom as she recounted her challenges with Holocaust survivor clients.  The survivors reported how being locked down triggered memories for them.  This in turn caused the social worker great stress. Just being able to share it with me helped her find her own footing, so she could in turn support her frail and elderly clients. 

Professional Others

The shiva model suggests having others help the mourner through the difficult initial period.  Sometimes we need others.  There are times when we need professionalized others such as chaplains.  Chaplains are spiritual care professionals who are trained in a health care setting, experienced in listening skills, group process, multi-disciplinary teams, and able to hear the “big questions” of meaning, suffering, purpose, hope and more.  But chaplaincy itself has changed in these last couple of months. We now even have a name for it - tele-chaplaincy.  This now involves phone calls to clients, support groups via Zoom, support of health care staff and other means for supporting those in need.  Again, like virtual shiva visits, the goals are the same, but the means and modalities have changed.  I have discovered in my own chaplaincy work that some things are harder – like trying to assess body language and non-verbal cues when you cannot see all of the client (on Zoom)  – or (on phone) when you cannot see them at all. But I and my colleagues have been forced to sharpen our listening skills to compensate. 

As I processed my own chaplaincy experiences, I realized that the techniques and outcomes in my pastoral encounters such as the Covid phone calls were not so different.  I asked the same questions and explored the same issues that I would have if I had been in the room. And the goal was to let my patients and client know that they were not alone.

What memories and stories will we take with us as we slowly move out of these months of Coronavirus?  How will we deal with our inability to travel – to see loved ones, or to vacation?  What about the changes to our economy and our economic well-being?  How will we tell our stories?  How we will integrate these memories and experiences into our lives?  What lessons can we take with us? 

We do not know the answers to these questions yet.

Jewish mourning practices can give us structure when structure has been stripped away.  Our tribal, religious, ethnic and peoplehood tendencies can be protective factors that may help mitigate against more dire realities. However, we must continue to convey that it is okay to ask for help.   Step by step, we can thus proceed on a long and winding road made more difficult when we do not have the mechanisms of up close and in person socialization. 

One day we will be able to come together again.  Hopefully, we will bring with us some lessons learned –finding blessings and opportunities amidst the challenges and difficulties, making use of platforms of which we did not even know, and more.  How we navigate the process of grieving for what we have lost will help determine how we translate these losses into the life that awaits us after the pandemic subsides. 

Rabbi Joseph S. Ozarowski, D. Min., BCC, is Rabbinical Counselor and Chaplain for JCFS Chicago, and a Jewish Chaplain for the NorthShore University HealthCare System in Chicago.  He is also President-elect of Neshama:  Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC). 

This article was published in Faith and Resiliency: Spiritual & Halachic Rabbinic Perspectives on the Coronavirus Pandemic in February 2021 and is reprinted with permission.

[i] For more details about this point, please see pp 70-71 of my book To Walk in God’s Ways – Jewish Pastoral Perspectives Illness and Bereavement.