Sitting Shiva AloneShelter-in-place restrictions related to COVID-19 began to relax across the United States in early May 2020. However, lingering concerns about a resurgent wave of infections kept most people cautious. With the CDC's recommendation against large gatherings still in effect, everything from sporting events to weddings has been impacted. These realities have also changed how Jewish communities go through grief and mourning.

A Quick Introduction to Shiva

Jewish communities observe the custom of shiva, part of a multistage mourning process that Chabad describes as “beautifully structured.” Shiva is the third stage, encouraging the bereaved to talk about their losses with friends and family. Grieving individuals will receive visitors, who typically bring food, and may follow other customs such as covering mirrors. Shiva means “seven” in Hebrew, so this mourning stage typically lasts seven days.

ReformJudaism.org explains that a prayer service known as the shiva minyan is held every afternoon or evening during shiva. Minyan is a Hebrew word that translates as “count” or “number,” and it refers to a quorum of 10 Jewish adults required for public worship, prayer, and Torah readings.

Social Distancing and Shiva

With grieving often being a community affair, the coronavirus outbreak has prompted significant changes to how Jewish people sit shiva. Shiva.com mentions that families and funeral homes are adapting as much as possible to the crisis by observing social distancing suggestions. Shiva visitors and minyans frequently include individuals over age 60, who are among the most vulnerable to severe complications from COVID-19. Some families are canceling or postponing their shivas, opting to hold them on later dates.

Losing a loved one can be traumatic on its own, but COVID-19 adds a new dimension of grief and frustration. Bereaved families struggle to find closure, and postponed shivas and memorial services make that even more difficult. The Forward shared observations by Roberta Caplan, who lost her father in March. Well-intentioned friends and family who couldn’t be with her due to the pandemic called to give their condolences, but they all tended to ask the same types of questions. Caplan found that “reliving his death over and over was one of the most draining aspects of sitting shiva.”

Sitting Shiva Goes Online

Jewish communities are doing their best to adjust mourning customs during the pandemic. Caplan suggests that friends and loved ones gather to remember the deceased during a telephone or video conference call online. Some families and funeral homes are already following that practice by livestreaming funerals. WBUR’s Miriam Wasser mentions virtual shiva services via Zoom, Skype, and other platforms. “It was good to have the family shiva because I could see my cousins' faces and I didn't feel as cut off,” said Debi Cantor-Sternin, whose mother Gloria died in mid-March.

Comfort and Compassion Are Vital

How can you help friends with recently deceased family? The Forward recommends avoiding sensitive topics when calling them. Rather, keep their emotional health in mind and do what you can to help from a distance. Even while you’re socially distancing, sharing positive memories can aid in achieving closure. If you like, you can also send gifts to the family. Food is usually the most appreciated, as Cake contributor Amy Wolkenhaur explains, and shiva baskets are an appropriate choice. They usually contain items like fruit, nuts, bread, and sweet pastries, but Wolkenhaur mentions several other ideas such as veggie and dip trays, restaurant soup deliveries, or a bagels and smoked salmon spread.

When someone dies, people gather to grieve, comfort the bereaved, and make sense of it within religious and cultural frameworks. COVID-19 has disrupted how Jewish people sit shiva, but many have found ways to reach out and support each other. True compassion and practical help are the best things you can offer to someone mourning the loss of a loved one.

Category: Loss

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