I read recently that rabbis, in particular, are dealing this fall with unprecedented mental health crises in their communities, as many of their congregants deal with myriad family losses. These are attributed, both directly or indirectly, to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, no one is surprised by this, as none of us have been spared from painful deaths of family members, friends and even of many of our beloved gedolim over the past 20 months. Somehow, losses seem harder now, perhaps because many of us gave up so much in terms of seeing our aged loved ones over the course of the lockdowns. The pre-vaccine-era funerals and Zoom shivas were lacking too in many ways. While they were the best we could do at the time, they certainly could not replace the power of a hug or human interaction. It’s no wonder that many people are in crisis and having difficulty managing unresolved grief.
This past week, our own Jewish Link family lost two deeply loved ones. Rabbi Mordechai Glick, husband of Nina, father to Dena and father-in-law to Moshe, was just one of our team’s losses, on Wednesday. Our production editor, Jen Hoffer, lost her father-in-law, Aaron’s father, David Hoffer of Springfield, on Thursday. It’s been a sad time and we are very much processing it all. Above all, we want to support our beloved colleagues and their families as they reorder their day-to-day lives without these important people.
As we can’t leave it all to our overworked rabbis, what more can we each do for our friends and loved ones? How can we more effectively help one another? Let me try to answer by telling a few stories of my own.
Losing my father 10 years ago to sudden acute rejection of his donor heart inspired me to enter shiva houses in a different way, and in some ways to seek out ways to mourn with friends or family members in ways I would have found meaningful. I felt I understood something new about what was going on, on the “other side of the shiva chair,” so to speak. Of course, everyone’s experience is different, but many people have difficulty with mourning or talking about it, whether they have experienced shiva personally or not. I don’t write to provide any kind of guide or checklist for what to do (one can read that from many others more qualified than I, particularly the major standard volume on the topic “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning” by Rabbi Maurice Lamm, or the more recent “Hilkhot Aveilut: Understanding the Laws of Mourning” by Rabbi David Brofsky). But I do want to acknowledge the varied layers of grief that can wash over us before, during and after shiva that may be acknowledged slightly less often.
In some cases, the grieving process begins even before our loved ones have left this world. This can be due to major or chronic illnesses, coma, terminal diagnoses or neurodegenerative disorders that change the way a person relates to his or her surroundings or loved ones. I won’t share personally my experience with this as it is very new, but caregiver grief is not uncommon. It was elucidated beautifully by Fort Lee’s Joan Zlotnick in her recent book “Holding it Together: Surviving Caregiving and Loss.” This book was reviewed by our own Pearl Markovitz this past August. I also reviewed a book for Jewish Action several years ago by Rabbi Benjamin Blech, may he live and be well, which discussed the rav’s personal experience grappling with a catastrophic and potentially terminal medical diagnosis. “Hope, Not Fear: Changing the Way We View Death” was an extraordinarily instructive volume for those facing terminal ailments, with some measure of context, spiritual benefit and even hope for the future.
Conversely, however, in most cases, mourning begins at the petirah (passing) and goes on much, much longer after the shiva or year of aveilut (mourning) ends, particularly in the case of children who lose parents, when someone loses a lifelong spouse, or when, God forbid, a parent loses a child.
I remember my senses shutting down and my knees buckling when I became an onen (the status of a person who has not yet buried their loved one and is restricted from doing positive mitzvot), at hearing of the sudden petira of my father. I sank to the kitchen floor, and my husband helped me to the living room, where my rav, Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky, showed up within moments to provide comfort and prepare me for becoming an avela. This actually heralded in “the easy part” of my grieving process, where I felt coddled and looked after in the bosom of my family and friends, with lines of people, thankfully, coming to comfort me, my mom and my siblings and share memories of my dad.
During the shiva itself I remember people asking me (and then me asking others in other shiva houses in subsequent years) how I was feeling at that moment. If I didn’t answer right away, did I want a coffee or a glass of water, just then? These were not big or profound questions—but open-ended enough that an avel can answer however they want. Those questions, I found, are also very valuable to ask aveilim especially in the day, weeks and months after the shiva ends; that is, after the parades of people and food and coffee and doughnuts and hespedim (eulogies) and text messages and cards and letters and all manner of love bombs.
One, two or even five months after a loss, it’s really important to check in with our friends and family members and just ask them how they’re doing at that moment. It might not seem like a big deal, but for me it was the small moments that could be hard, and hard to fill with something other than the empty void of the person missing. A podcast I’ve been listening to, called “The Grief Coach: Conversations about Life and Death” by Brooke James, makes suggestions of little things that friends and family can do for their grieving loved ones in these in-between months.
I loved getting called or texted from the store, with a friend asking if they could pick up something I might need. Or people would ask if I’d like to come over, or go out together for a cup of coffee, a walk or a meal. When my friend Randi’s father passed away a few years ago, I asked her if she needed anything and ended up picking up a favorite lunch, a poke bowl, for her. I got one for myself too, as I’d never tasted this delicacy, and we ended up eating together at a quiet moment in her shiva house. Nowadays, whenever we happen to order the same kind of food, we often text each other and reminisce about how good it is. It’s nice how we now have a shared favorite comfort food.
Sometimes an avel can elucidate, in actual words, what they truly need to assuage their grief, and a determined group can make it happen: A close friend of mine with young children, who lost her husband close to half a dozen years ago, had a rotation of women friends, of which I was a part, who came to make and share dinner with her every single night for close to a year. Because that’s what she needed. It’s different for everyone.
Sometimes the gift is just in the asking, even if the avel doesn’t need anything.
But sometimes it really is the little things that help us through what we might call “the daily continuing crisis.” When I was in quarantine with my kids last week, my friend Robin called from 7-Eleven. She knew my kids had not been outside for many days and just said, simply, “I’m at 7-Eleven, standing in front of the Slurpee machine. Would your kids appreciate Slurpees right now?” I knew they would, and they did.
Robin’s simple, loving gesture meant more than I can say, and it was sweeter than a hundred Slurpees.
These aren’t the only suggestions out there, and God knows our community knows how to give. The meal train groups and chesed committees at our beautiful shuls could write their own manuals for how to manage families and individuals in need in so many ways. But personal friends have a role too, to make sure that each and every person facing loss is looked after in their own way.
May we all be comforted with the sweetness of friendship and by the love we have for those we have lost, among the mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim.
By Elizabeth Kratz