When One Cannot Sit Shiva

“On March 30th, I had three grandparents. I now only have one grandparent,” Emma wrote in a letter to the New York Times. In what seemed “like a horror film,” she said, “both of my grandfathers passed away from COVID-19 within two days.”

When we spoke to Emma, a 27 year-old social work student in Manhattan, she was still feeling overwhelmed by the deaths of her two grandfathers, Bob and Marty. She was also overwhelmed by the rules Jewish funerals necessitated. “Like each of us shoveling dirt into the plot, but we would all be touching the same shovel. And I mean the shovel was not negotiable. Did we all have Purell? Can you get dirt from Israel in an epidemic? And shiva was out of the question. So what do we do?”  

Like many mourners we interviewed, Emma compared these funerals to those in the past. “In 2011 when my grandmother died, we sat shiva, we ate, we hugged, I sang a song, we talked about grandma. There was no collaborative feeling this year, no sharing emotions. Even at the funeral, except for tears I couldn’t see anyone’s emotions behind the masks.”

Even something as simple as receiving a delivery of food was stressful, and posed a challenge to expectations about reciprocity.

“We couldn’t sit shiva where we would normally feed people. So my mom’s side of the family sent food and gifts and my dad’s side of the family sent food and gifts. But then we didn’t know if we needed to send food and gifts back to them too because we are supposed to feed them.”

“Bob was the first confirmed case of COVID in his nursing home – he was in a special dementia unit and we couldn’t really communicate with him anyway. So his death doesn’t feel real.

Actually, neither does Marty’s. I mean, we were on the phone with him all the time talking about how he was feeling. But his death was not necessary, it didn’t have to happen. He seemed so healthy.”

“His death haunts us. It haunts us because he kept saying ‘I need help’ and ‘I can’t do this alone,’ but we were all in quarantine.”