Robert Festenstein
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Hugs will have to wait

With condolence visits out, this pandemic has upended the mourning process. Zoom and WhatsApp will have to do for now

Last year the mother of a close friend of mine died. She was an elderly lady and had been poorly for some time. Her passing did not come as a surprise or shock, it was just sad. My family and I went along to the funeral to support our friend. We hugged her and other members of her family and stood close to her at the graveside. Afterwards at the Shiva house, we crammed into the house for prayers and again, hugged Sue and wished her long life before leaving.

Last week the mother of another friend of mine died. Although she had been unwell for some time her passing was a shock, not least because she was relatively young. This time though I could only attend the funeral by zoom. I could see my friend Steven at the burial ground with his father and but for a handful of religious helpers they were alone. It was bizarre seeing the place empty instead of being there in the jostle to comfort the mourners and queue up to help fill the grave.

Later, in the evening, as before, I attended the Shiva house but this time by zoom. It was so odd trying to comfort someone remotely, taking my turn to say something when what I really wanted to do was give him a hug.

And then, today I lost a friend. I hadn’t known Nigel for very long, less than a year. Yet in that time I grew to like him very much. He was a very decent man, humorous, generous and a loving husband and father; an all-round nice guy. And now he’s gone, taken by Covid-19 twenty five or thirty years before his time. I am so sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to know him for longer.

Writing this it occurred to me that a funeral isn’t just an event for immediately after someone’s death, it is something to think about and refer to forever. There is nearly always something about a funeral of note; my grandmother’s funeral when my uncle turned up late, my father’s funeral when it was so cold there was talk of hurrying things along by using a digger conveniently close by, and the one of my wife’s great uncle where the undertaker got close to burying the wrong body. Appropriately enough, he had been a bit of a joker in his lifetime and his children placed a notice in the newspaper after the funeral – “so long Dad, you had the last laugh after all.”

There won’t be a story like these for Nigel, just 30 minutes or so in front of a computer screen. And again in the evening for Shiva. I am not the first to say that it is just not enough.

The Jewish way of mourning is carefully designed to help people grieve and then slowly get back into a normal way of life. This depends on support from family and friends being in close proximity. We cannot do this at present so we need to be imaginative about delivering that support. I am sure that WhatsApp and Skype are not going to be enough but must be better than nothing. I don’t know yet how I am going to support Steven from last week or Nigel’s family from today but I am going to try now because now is the time they need it, and save the hugs for later.

About the Author
Robert Festenstein is a solicitor based in Manchester with considerable experience in Court actions. He is active in fighting the increase in anti-Semitism in the UK and is President of the Zionist Central Council, an organisation devoted to promoting and defending the democratic State of Israel.
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