Reflections on Shiva during COVID-19 shelter-in-place

My father passed away on Friday March 13th, 2020. That evening the shul in our community in Dallas shut down and all minyanim essentially ceased. After the burial in New Jersey, I began my Shiva on that Monday right as self-quarantine and shelter in place became the new normal in Jewish communities across the US. The word I use most to describe my shiva is “bizarre.” Like many other areas of life, the familiar was replaced by something new, awkward and strange. This was especially trying for shiva since shiva in the best of situations is usually difficult and can be awkward for both the person sitting shiva as well as those who are offering comfort. 

The rabbi told us that the purpose of shiva was to cement a sort of memory book about my father and that idea resonated with me. Contemplating trying to do this without all of the usual structures of shiva was daunting. Support looked different but was certainly still present. One of my closest childhood friends came to the funeral site but ended up texting me that he felt too nervous to enter the building. Instead he watched the funeral on his phone from his car in the parking lot and waited to express his condolences when we exited the building to drive to the graveyard. I was deeply touched by this gesture which would never have happened in a normal circumstance.

The goal of Shiva is Nichum. Nichum comes from the root N.Ch.M. which means a reframe, a new appreciation. An example is Shemos 32:14 where Hashem takes a new perspective on the potential of destroying the Jewish people in the aftermath of the golden calf (a similar example is seen after the flood). It is a perspective on the loved one who has passed away that can only be reached when the life can be viewed in its totality. Accomplishing the goal of Nichum requires dep thought and deep feeling. When the usual structure of shiva is not present, it needs a real plan of how to begin the journey to a sense of Nichum.

I found that sitting Shiva during a time of shelter-in-place and social distancing means that I needed to be more thoughtful about creating my own journey through the shiva process. I am sharing some of the aspects that were most meaningful for me. My hope is that these thoughts and perspectives may help others who unfortunately have to go through shiva during this difficult time or clergy and others who help shepherd people through this process. 

Capturing the experience – I found that capturing both my reflections and also some of the events and visits was helpful.

  • Although I am generally not one to journal, I began a journal where I captured some of what I heard from people over shiva, conversations we had as a family and anything else that struck me about my father.
  • Utilizing Zoom to record some of the shiva visits as well as some of the time I spoke about my father during shiva and shloshim was a nice way to add to the memory book and allowed me to view them again in times when I wanted to reflect.

Utilizing online resources – There was a need to utilize the online resources that are available in order to create some of the moments of shiva.

  • Streaming the funeral – This was done by the funeral home and I would recommend that it be set up in such a way that it is easy to access the feed but that there is a way to capture who is viewing the funeral as a parallel to the book where people sign in when they attend a funeral. 
  • Memory wall – An online memory wall was set up where people could share thoughts, pictures and videos of my father. This was helpful but it needs to be publicized well and if possible done in a forum that doesn’t require creating an account. Social media may be a good venue for this. Some of the meaningful comments were flung out among different people’s pages and different platforms – finding a way to collect them in one place is advisable.
  • Getting the word out – In general, a prerequisite for support is that wider networks of friends and relatives are aware of the loss and how to contact those sitting shiva. Although this was not something I initially wanted to worry about, I did make sure that some of the Jewish educational institutions I attended were aware of the loss and sent out an announcement. This was even more important than usual since essentially the entire support and nichum “visits” were all online and phone calls. Having a broader range of people definitely helped.
  • Creating communal opportunities – One of the real difficult aspects was the complete lack of community feeling. Without a minyan in the house, kaddish or in-person visits, it was hard to feel the sense of communal support. Once I returned home to Dallas in the middle of shiva, the rabbi set up a 15 minute virtual Mishna learning where I spoke about my father and community members had a chance to dial in to the Zoom room. I really appreciated the time to be able to speak about my dad and also the fact that it was easily recorded. The rabbi also took note of how many people attended and made sure to let me know. I set up something similar for the siyyum mishnayot for my father’s shloshim.

The positive side of video/phone calls

  • One of the differences which I found to be a positive is the fact that not having in person visitors was a great equalizer, making people from next door and friends and relatives from Israel and across the country all equally accessible. This helped long distance people not to get lost in the bustle of a shiva house and made for some deep and supportive calls with family members who were far away, allowing them to be our focus.
  • Another benefit of virtual shiva was that even after my sister and I went back to our respective cities in the middle of shiva we were still able to be on the Zoom shiva calls with my mother and “sit together” even while apart. 

Zoom rooms were far better than individual calls

  • Much to my surprise, utilizing the function of an open Zoom room for an hour or so a few times a day turned out to be an excellent way to hear and share stories as well as feel the support of the community. 
  • The feeling of a room where the expectation is to flow in and out, much like a usual shiva home would normally be, was far less intense than a dedicated time slot or conversation with one person. I felt that there were many in the community who were not especially close to me or my family who were scared off by the idea of a one-on-one call but appreciated the opportunity to pay a shiva call in an open room.
  • Additionally, the atmosphere of open rooms is closer to a normal shiva home. It is not as awkward and people can still come and listen or “sit in the back row” and just show support without being in a position where they are expected to hold the conversation single-handedly.
  • I also found that it was actually easier to have a group focus on memories of the departed as opposed to individual conversations. The positive social pressure and online etiquette of all being on the screen and taking turns keeps calls less social and more of a real shiva visit.
  • As a new issue of Zoom-bombing rears its ugly head, measures will need to be taken to avoid this both in an open room and also if Zoom is used for individual visits.

Davening without kaddish

  • This remains one of the very hard parts of mourning for me. Initially, I had someone in Israel who was saying kaddish while minyanim still functioned there and then I was able to have soldiers in Nachal Chareidi in the IDF say kaddish on my behalf. Kaddish is such a central part of mourning in our practice that whether it deserves such a place or not, it is so odd not to say kaddish. There is a Tefilla composed by the Sefer Chassidim for when a minyan can’t be found and I have been saying that instead. 
  • Although, I could have joined Zoom prayers, I did not choose to participate. I found that I preferred going at my own pace to the Zoom tefilla together. Tefilla is an important piece of shiva and shloshim and this situation allows for a more personal decision for exactly how one wants to approach it. 

My hope is that these reflections can be helpful to those sitting shiva (or guiding others through that process) in these unusual times. May we see an end to this plague quickly, may Hashem heal all those who have taken ill and may we collectively know no more sorrow.

About the Author
Rabbi Maury Grebenau has been leading Jewish schools for the past decade and is currently the principal of Yavneh Academy of Dallas. Rabbi Grebenau has written a number of articles on educational leadership and current issues including teen health and school technology use. His articles have been published in Phi Delta Kappan, Principal Leadership and Hayidion, among others. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University.
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