In general, death and mourning are sensitive and difficult times to navigate for mourners, family and friends seeking to provide support and comfort. The subject of death, regardless of mortality, is discussed infrequently and often taboo. In light of the Coronavirus pandemic, the subject of death and loss is now front and center. At a time of loss, all individuals grieve and mourn differently.

Stages of Mourning in the Jewish Faith

When there is a death of an individual of the Jewish faith, traditionally there are prescribed periods of mourning, including, aninut, the shiva, sheloshim, the year of mourning for certain mourners, which provides structure and a process when grieving. Notwithstanding the level of observance or religious affiliation, grief and mourning are processes, sometimes referred to as stages that individuals experience when a loss occurs to help cope.

How Coronavirus Affects Mourning Periods in Judaism

Within Judaism, there are defined periods or stages beginning at the time a death occurs. The Jewish funeral and burial also may include certain rituals and practices, most notably the timing in which a traditional Jewish funeral takes place, which is customarily within 24-hours following the death. Given a number of factors such as level of observance, geographic location for family members, location of passing, along with coordination and making of funeral arrangements, the timing may be extended. In light of the Coronavirus, there are now new government restrictions rapidly being introduced for public health and safety reasons that do impact the timing and manner of funerals. As such, individuals who are mourning their loved one may face an additional level of stress and grief associated with the planning and coordinating of the funeral and burial services. In the near term, there are sweeping changes taking place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The breadth and length of time the restrictions will remain are still unknown, but the practices of social distancing are in effect across the United States. Many families are understanding about the situation. That said, this additional consideration or change in practices does introduce a new type of grief.

Changes in Traditional Funeral and Burial Impact the Grieving Process

The Jewish funeral and burial brings together mourners, extended family and friends to eulogize their departed loved one. A memorial services is generally officiated by a member of the clergy, who helps to guide and commemorate the deceased. A funeral and burial is a part of the grieving process that provides mourners an opportunity to outwardly express feelings and emotions about their loved one. As a result of public health and safety concerns, gatherings are now limited in size to avoid spreading of COVID-19. For those who pre-planned, made final arrangements in advance with wishes of a public funeral and burial surrounded by friends and family this creates an additional stress, anger and grief. Funeral homes across the United States are working to offer services that help. Included in these services are video streaming of funerals, postponement of burial, and future use of the funeral home chapel for a memorial service.

Impact of Coronavirus on Sitting Shiva

Shiva, is the seven day time period immediately following a burial, and is the first structured period of mourning within Judaism. According to the Jewish faith, sitting shiva, is a religious ritual and practice that allows mourners' time to begin the grieving process. Generally, a shiva involves a gathering of family, friends and the community who are expressing condolences and providing comfort. In an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 by implementing social distancing, many shivas, similar to all other gatherings are either cancelled or scaled back to combat the spread of the virus. In particular, during shiva it is very common for individuals who are over the age of 60 to attend so added precautions are being taken. Other measures include severely limiting the number of attendees and online scheduling in order to ensure families receive appropriate support, but allow for the maintenance of social distancing. Despite religious observances and families wishes, in many instances shivas are being canceled or postponed, which is unprecedented and introduces the potential for extended grieving and a new type of grief. The bereaved families are electing to hold a memorial service at a later date. With this impact on shivas, gatherings and other celebrations of life, it is important that extended family, friends and the community remain engaged and offer other means of support to comfort those grieving a loss. The use of technology, phone, and social media (ie. Facebook) to engage and communicate with mourners is helpful and generally appropriate. In addition, there are ways to express condolences by sending appropriate commemorative gifts, including planting a tree in Israel, commemorative plaques, and even certain meals and shiva baskets.

A New Grief

In addition to the ordinary grief mourners experience at a time of loss, the newly imposed requirements to modify or cancel public funerals, burials, and shivas introduces a new trauma and component to the grieving process. The cause of this new grief may differ among people. For example, in certain instances the inability to honor the wishes a departed loved one by having family and friends in attendance at a funeral, burial and/or shiva may be the cause; while for others it may be an inability to adhere strictly to religious observances. Additionally, since grief and loss is personal the restrictions on gatherings of friends and extended family limits physical and emotional support which is one component people rely upon after a death. The full affect and impact on mourners for the measures taken by the CDC, State and local governments regarding funerals, burials and shivas are not yet known. In the interim, it is important that extended family and friends provide support and comfort in new ways to remain connected and present for grieving individuals.