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Friday, December 18, 2020

Adapting to Mourning During and Beyond the Pandemic | By Rabbi Richard Hirsh

The pandemic through which the world is moving mournfully and medically has left no area of life untouched. Moments of the life-cycle for which family and friends would normally gather have migrated to primarily distance-and-digital experiences. Even where the unfolding of Covid contamination has allowed for intervals when small gatherings could take place, many moments of significance now unfold remotely over various online platforms. 

Some of the events that occur in isolation will allow for future regroupings – private Zoom weddings may be followed by a first or second anniversary in-person celebrations; students of the 2020 high school classes can look forward to college graduations convened in person. 

But for the moments of loss occurring during Covid, the inability to gather when the emotional and family consequences are most intense compromises and inevitably attenuates the rites and rituals of spiritual traditions. Put differently, at what is perhaps the most intense liminal experience of the life-cycle, the comfort of in-person presence that provides consolation is unavailable. While a memorial gathering at a later time can be meaningful, and such gatherings can and will evolve as Covid is tamed, the immediacy of the emotions of loss will have receded.

                                                 Image: Jewish News

Spiritual communities and those who belong to them have had to accept and adapt to different ways of providing support and fulfilling rituals, whether viewed as obligatory or as optional. And yet, we are learning from Zoom funerals, wakes, comfort observances and other religious rites, that online platforms that currently serve as a substitute for traditional services may, when Covid is over, remain as a supplement to those same services. I will use the Jewish rituals with which I am most familiar as an example.

The shiva gathering (the seven-day period of mourning observed at home after a funeral, when mourners receive condolence calls and religious services migrate from the synagogue to the home) has customarily been in-person; colloquially, comforters “make a shiva call” to be with mourners in their home. 
During Covid, shiva visits have been made by joining designated Zoom open calls, and morning or evening services have been conducted remotely. The end of the pandemic will see a return to in-person shiva observances, but I anticipate many congregants and clergy members will also want to retain the Zoom option for those who live too far away to attend a funeral or make an in-person shiva visit. While before Covid people could always send a condolence note or perhaps make a phone call, we have learned from Covid the importance of joining mourners and comforters in “real time”, even if remote. A “both-and” format is likely to be a viable way of forging connections. 
Put differently, while the pandemic restrictions have temporarily removed us from the comforting in-person familiarity of spiritual traditions, these same restrictions have made us more aware of the importance of access to those traditions – and how the technology towards which we defaulted out of necessity has made us aware of how we may learn to adapt that technology out of choice.

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