One morning in October, I was sitting in the kitchen of my childhood home, which also happens to be my mom’s current office, drinking coffee and doing nothing on my phone. Hidden behind her two laptops and one desktop screen, I could hear some static, muffled Hebrew prayers interrupted by the occasional chime of an incoming email. When she wasn’t typing away, it was unclear if the silence meant she had tuned into the Zoom funeral streaming on one of her screens or was reading one of the many work emails simultaneously flooding her inbox.
No shade intended towards my mom—she’s a kind and empathetic person, and the e-funeral was for an elderly mother of an acquaintance—but it didn’t seem abnormal for her to be virtually paying respects without missing a beat in her Monday working from home. There is not much that could surprise me at this point in 2020.
Unfortunate circumstances brought me to my parents' kitchen that morning—a death that cut far deeper for me. My neighbor of 23 years, the father of my oldest friend, had passed away out of nowhere just a few days prior. He had been perfectly healthy, no known illness or threat. When my friend found out about her dad, some close friends in Colorado made the trip with her to the airport, struggling to keep their PPE intact through full body sobs. As they put her on the plane to New York, their shields fogged up, their medical masks soaked through. If you think it’s difficult to exercise with a mask on, try prolonged crying.
When my dad called me with the news, I clumsily packed my own bag and rushed home, too. It felt impossible not to come together like we did when I saw them, maybe in part due to pandemic fatigue but mostly because I literally could not stop myself from embracing this family that felt like an extension of my own. Some emotional force was hurling me toward them. Then, back in my childhood bed that night, I felt an inkling of a cough somewhere in the depths of my throat, and that novel pandemic panic pulled at the already tightly tangled knot in my stomach. I was so grateful in the moment for that physical contact, something that many people have gone completely without this year, but I don't know that it was worth the resulting anxiety.
Grieving always feels like an impossible task, but grieving in 2020 was an entirely new breed of torture. The same technology that allowed us to conduct business almost as usual also became the primary method of memorializing. Most of us coped with some degree of loss, whether it was the loss of loved ones, jobs, daylight, social lives, or faith in humanity, without turning to instinctive means of comfort. Instead, we sought socially distanced emotional support, finding companionship in Facebook groups or consulting robots about mental health issues. The vast capabilities of cyberspace proved essential, yet in my own mourning process, I couldn't help but feel unfulfilled by this digital consolation.
Over the course of the weekend that I was home, I watched my neighbors scroll through photos on their phones, play back saved voicemails, tell stories about getting a text from someone named Dan and breaking down because, for just a second, it looked like it had come from Dad. There was no funeral, no Zoom service, just these moments on phones. I couldn't stop thinking that all of the communication, all the remembering, happening through our screens in 2020 couldn't offer the same closure.
We could not reschedule death, so honoring lives became another thing we could only do insufficiently and from afar. Back in April, my family was able to say a brief goodbye to my grandpa via FaceTime thanks to the kindness of an ICU nurse. My parents have tuned into what feels like countless Zoom funerals or memorials, some COVID-related, some not, most of which involve poor internet connections, or attendees who don’t understand how to mute, or dozens of people talking over each other. The distance and disarray inherent in these new end-of-life rituals seems to have instilled a general jadedness, likely contributing to the multitasking I witnessed in my kitchen that October morning. There seems to be an increasing numbness, as the Washington Post recently documented, when it comes to death.
I am not in any sense a religious or spiritual person, but the one thing I’ve always appreciated about Judaism is the way we do death, or at least, the way I’d experienced it pre-pandemic. We made sure those who were mourning were never alone, never had to think about cooking, never able to see the reflection of themselves with puffy, makeup-less eyes. (I know that’s not the reason for covering up mirrors, but it's a major plus.) Sitting Shiva was full of booze and food. It reunited loved ones to share stories about the deceased and celebrate life. These traditions exist for a reason—they offer an initial distraction, something to plan, a sense of peace and togetherness. How do you get any of that when none of them can, or I suppose should, happen right now?
I know there’s no right way to grieve, but this year sure has forced us to get creative. I resent that there’s so much more we have to consider to compound the existing stress that follows the death of a loved one. I’m frustrated that I feel helpless, that I can’t protect my friends and family from this suffering, and that I’m not supposed to be there for them the only way I know how—by physically being there for them.
Digital mourning may be better than nothing, but it does not do the same justice to the deceased, nor offer that same sense of finality needed to move on. Everyone talks about how next year—or whatever year (if any year)—will be full of postponed weddings and other belated events. Few talk about all of the delayed memorials and celebrations of life, the people to be embraced, the shoulders to cry on, the sharing of stories to be done. Few seem to realize that there will be just as many endings as beginnings to commemorate.
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