Grief After Sitting Shiva in the Pandemic, What Comes Next?
The grief of the pandemic era is ongoing. What happens if everyone is sitting shiva at once?
“Hey, Mimi. It’s Rach.”
I announce this at the beginning of every phone call with my nonagenarian grandmother in the early months of the pandemic. It’s my way of gently reminding her which of her four grandchildren is calling in case she no longer recognizes my voice.
As we catch up, I picture her taking this call at her assisted living facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the town where I grew up. She’s wearing her robin’s-egg blue silk bathrobe and matching nightgown, completing the look with her “house shoes”: her gold leather slippers. I’m the youngest of her four grandchildren and the youngest cousin in my generation, so I’ve always felt a special connection to Mimi, who is the youngest among her sisters and her generation. I glance down at my own outfit—a teal velour bathrobe and beglittered fleece-lined slippers—and realize for the millionth time that we’re kindred spirits, connected by the Jewish idea of kismet, of fate.
When I moved to California over a decade ago, my calls with Mimi began with her giving me shit: “Who is this? I don’t recognize your voice because it’s been so long since you’ve called.” But her jokes morphed into pleas in her later years, especially after my dad, her son, died. When will you visit me? Ever since she moved into the retirement home a year or two before the pandemic, it became clear that she saw her life as coming to a close, her world becoming smaller.
As the pandemic wears on, I grow depressed. My world becomes smaller too. I call Mimi less frequently, maybe every few weeks. When I do call, she asks when I’m planning to visit her, posing the question with a more pointed urgency than before. And I promise her that as soon as I’m eligible for the vaccine and receive my shots, I’ll be there.
As soon as I’m vaccinated is the line that everyone recites as we grieve the losses of loved ones and the relative stability of the Before Times. As soon as I’m vaccinated is often interchanged with When Covid ends , a hopeful refrain that comes after every wedding, graduation, and party is postponed.
Finally, in June of 2021, two weeks after I reach full immunity and three weeks before my planned visit to see Mimi, I get a call from my sister. Mimi’s health has taken a turn for the worse. She only has a few days to live.
The Jewish custom of shiva, which comes from the Hebrew word for seven , is the weeklong period after the burial of a loved one. It follows the preburial mourning period called aninut . While mourners sit shiva, friends are supposed to visit, bringing food and well-wishes. The ritual of sitting shiva allows mourners to wallow in the pits of their despair before they move back out into the world. As a reform and semiagnostic Jew, I’ve never followed all the observances associated with sitting shiva, but more observant Jews follow much tighter restrictions, ones that sound similar to the way many lived while sheltering in place, e.g. not leaving the house, shaving, getting a haircut, wearing makeup, having sex, or bathing.
In Ilana Masad’s debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers , Maggie, the protagonist, reflects on sitting shiva. Masad writes: “The idea of a shiva makes sense to her, in theory, because mourning rituals are important, a conviction that has only grown from keeping up with the news in the past few years; every time there’s some kind of mass shooting or hate crime, people gather to mourn, after all.” But when Maggie’s mother dies suddenly and she’s forced to return to her hometown for her mother’s funeral and shiva, she suddenly “wants nothing of the sort, no matter how much sense it makes.”
I read All My Mother’s Lovers in the winter of 2020, around the eight-year anniversary of my dad’s death, and I understood Maggie’s desire to run away from her mom’s shiva. I remembered the feeling of failure as I gave in to the loud sobs heaving up from my chest in the synagogue sanctuary during my dad’s funeral, the inside-outness of such a gaudy display of grief in a room full of people. The solemn faces of my friends, my friends’ parents, and my parents’ friends at the gravesite. The itchy dread of expecting even more condolences at home after both services.
I find myself thinking about Maggie’s dread as I fly across the country to say goodbye to Mimi. As soon as I settle into my seat on the plane, I ask my seatmate to pull up her mask. The last time I boarded a plane was in March of 2020; I went to North Carolina to be with my three best friends from high school after one of them lost her partner, a Marine who was killed in combat. Two days after I returned from North Carolina, San Francisco’s stay-at-home order went into effect.
Though some people find immense comfort in returning to their hometown , I am not one of them. Visiting Tulsa has been a source of anxiety since my dad died. I was twenty-one, a senior in college, when he passed away from cancer at age fifty-four, and I spent the winter break of my senior year sitting shiva in my childhood home. Many of my high school classmates were home for the holidays and generously came to the shiva, offering uncomfortable yet friendly smiles and tepid questions about life in California and my major, questions that wouldn’t be questions had we kept in touch.
I was moved by the generosity of these visitors, all willing to brave a cold Oklahoma winter to pay their respects to my family, but I couldn’t help thinking that the whole thing felt like a pity party. And quite literally, as shivas in Tulsa are known for their impressive spread of cookies baked by my mom’s Nice Jewish Lady Friends. Thumbprint cookies and peanut butter kisses, jam bars and biscotti, chocolate chip and mandel bread. A few of the bakers made my dad’s favorites in his honor: cornmeal shortbread and the ends of cherry strudel (the part that’s usually discarded that he referred to lovingly as “strudel tushes”). This gesture, making cookies that he would love but that he was no longer here to enjoy, made my heart melt and ache in equal measure.
This gesture, making cookies that he would love but that he was no longer here to enjoy, made my heart melt and ache in equal measure.
The discomfort of feeling pitied has followed me on every subsequent trip to Tulsa, where it’s impossible not to run into someone who knew my dad, who knows that he died at a tragically young age. In these encounters, I perceive pity in every comment, every gesture. Like the former teacher who told me how sad she was to hear of my father’s death. How much it upset her . Going home feels like trying on a pair of old jeans from the back of the closet, jeans that no longer fit quite right.
It’s a shame because I had a lovely childhood, but this is what grief does: It has a way of usurping even the best memories, defacing their beauty, turning them into devastating vignettes, reminders of what was and therefore no longer is. The park where my dad used to take my sister and me to launch rockets, the Indian restaurant where my family ate every Sunday night for years. Filtered through the lens of grief, beloved haunts become just that: haunts.
The morning after I arrive in Tulsa, I drive with my aunt and cousin to say goodbye to Mimi. She’s not conscious, and I can tell that her soul has already left her body, but I’m here because I promised to visit her as soon as I could, a promise I can’t bear to break.
It’s nearly a hundred degrees out at Mimi’s funeral, weather hot enough to make you faint. Someone does faint. I’m sticky from the heat, suffocated by the smell of mowed grass. I’m wearing the necklace Mimi gave me for my bat mitzvah, and the tiny aquamarines hanging from its delicate silver chain resemble teardrops. I cry for Mimi, for the loneliness of the last year of her life, for the suffering she endured in her nearly ninety-six years. I cry for my dad, my mom, my twenty-one-year-old self, my sister, the pandemic, the loss of so much of this branch of my family tree. I wonder if family trees can feel the sensation of phantom limbs.
After the rabbi’s eulogy and the mourner’s kaddish, a traditional prayer, family members shovel dirt over the casket, following a Jewish custom. As I lift the heavy shovel and drop its contents of earth over Mimi’s casket, I feel simultaneously gutted and grateful. Bereft for the obvious reasons, but also thankful that I made it in time to say goodbye, that I had her in my life for as long as I did, that I could safely travel to be here, something I wasn’t able to do for my dad’s first cousin and his wife, both of whom passed away during the early months of the pandemic. And I’m grateful for something else, something I can’t quite name.
Once the ceremony concludes, I walk to the plots of earth my parents purchased in a stroke of pragmatism after they had children. They must’ve imagined that their own eventual burials would come many years later, after they’d lived out a long and happy retirement together. I don’t think they ever imagined that my father would be buried at midlife, that their imagined future together would be cleaved in half.
The last time I visited this cemetery was in 2013 for my father’s unveiling, the Jewish ceremony a year after the funeral. A few yards away from Mimi’s, I see my father’s name etched in stone, but nothing about it feels real, even eight years later. How has my dad, the smartest and funniest man I’ve ever known, been reduced to this? And how is it possible that this eventual fate becomes each and every one of us? Following another Jewish custom, I place a smooth stone on his grave, a mark of respect.
We return to my aunt and uncle’s house after Mimi’s burial. Despite our decision not to have a public shiva as a Covid precaution, two enormous, artfully arranged cookie trays have appeared as if by some stroke of Jewish magic. I point out the strudel to my partner and tell him about “strudel tushes.” Just after I finish telling this story, I see that the friend who baked the cherry strudel has cut off the ends and left them on a separate plate with a note about my dad. It’s enough to make me cry all over again.
Later, my cousins gather in the kitchen. We haven’t seen each other in over a year, and there’s something comforting about being in the same physical space together. It’s a reminder that there are beautiful aspects of grieving with loved ones, a luxury few were able to experience during the worst months of the pandemic. I think back to the days of aninut and shiva for my dad, when I spent long nights in the kitchen of my childhood home, eating Jewish cookies with my three best friends, the same three friends who gathered in North Carolina, in yet another kitchen, to drink red wine and eat Five Guys because there were no Jewish cookies to be eaten.
It occurs to me that I didn’t recognize the beauty of those moments until years later, which is another of grief’s cruelties: It overshadows everything, even the comforting rituals of mourning, leaving in its wake memories that appear like pages dipped into ink, entirely dark until enough time passes and you’re able to hold them up to the right light.
Another of grief’s cruelties: It overshadows everything, even the comforting rituals of mourning.
Back in California after Mimi’s funeral, I sleep and sleep, my mind fuzzy with grief. I procrastinate my work, taking long naps from which I awake in a frenzy of self-loathing and shame for being so unproductive. I’m grieving, but I can’t pause to mourn . It’s not the time to pause: The world is opening back up. For the first time in months, I have a packed schedule.
In the Jewish framework of mourning, I’m entering the third and final phase of mourning, sheloshim, which follows shiva. Hebrew for thirty , sheloshim lasts a month, and it’s a time in which mourners can resume some but not all of their normal activity. As the weeks pass, I start to wonder if it’s possible to enter this phase without properly sitting shiva, at least from a psychological standpoint. Throughout the pandemic, many writers have explored the concept of pandemic-related grief . I was one of them . But writing about it doesn’t make it easier to understand as the landscape of my personal grief, and our collective grief, continues to shape-shift.
In June of 2021, it feels as if many of us in countries where vaccines are widely available have reached the final stage of pandemic grief. According to the Kubler-Ross model , we’re in the acceptance stage. But our acceptance has always hinged on the idea that there would soon be an “after” to the now. As June turns to July and then August, the idea that we’re finished grieving feels naive. How can we grieve something that is ongoing? How can we grieve when we’re still exhausted ?
When I set out to write this essay, I had a tidy thesis: that we should adopt aspects of shiva into our collective grief as we move out of the Covid era. That I’d realized the benefits of sitting shiva for my father, and that by not properly doing it for my grandmother, I had come to better appreciate it. That we should all allow ourselves to sit still with our grief and face it head-on. That we should allow others to bring us cookies and well-wishes. Or, that, at the very least, we should gather with close friends and have a good cry.
But as infection rates rise around the globe and, in many countries, vaccination rates remain low, gathering is starting to feel ill-advised, the grief of the pandemic era ongoing. What happens if everyone is sitting shiva at once? With the models of Jewish mourning for the deceased, everything is orderly; rituals provide closure. And what greater closure is there than death? But in this time of uncertainty, we find ourselves in a veritable limbo of Dante’s Inferno .
I now understand what I felt grateful for at Mimi’s funeral. I was glad to have these rituals. Reciting mourner’s kaddish, shoveling dirt on the casket, placing a stone on the headstone, eating Jewish cookies, crying in the kitchen. I might not be a traditionalist, but I do, like many others , find comfort in rituals. We don’t know how long our present grief will last, and we can’t mourn in the ways we could for other losses in other, more precedent times, but we can make new rituals. Or we can revive old ones, even those so secular or untraditional that we didn’t realize they were family traditions at all, like calling loved ones from the cocoon of a favorite bathrobe.