life after life

A Wrench in the Gears of the Grief Machine

How do I mourn with members of my faith if I can’t be with them?

Illustration: Jeanne Verdoux
Illustration: Jeanne Verdoux

Death is a busy thing. Or it was, in the before. Usually, when a member of my congregation dies, it triggers an intricate choreography of people swirling around the grieving family getting the things-that-need-doing done. There are funeral arrangements to be made, flowers to be ordered, meals to be cooked. As Mormons, our congregation is run by its members; there’s no pastor or priest who has trained for years and will write the perfect eulogy or coordinate with the funeral home. But as part of our faith, we promise to mourn with those who mourn, and so we each do what we can: hold the hand of the grieving spouse, cobble together a choir for the funeral, dress the body, or make a casserole.

The busyness feels good. The work is virtuous but also distracting. Whipping up a tray of classic Mormon funeral potatoes — a perfect storm of soft carbs and rich dairy fat that fill, comfort, and anesthetize the pain of loss for an entire crowd — keeps my hands busy and my thoughts from drifting to my own mortality. When they inevitably do, I take comfort in knowing that one day someone will be stuffing my family full of comfort in the form of Idaho spuds swimming in sour cream too.

The first week in April, I got a call: An older sister in our church had gone to the hospital with shortness of breath and had died of COVID-19. I was halfway to the kitchen to see what I could fix her husband for dinner when the gears of the grief machine ground to a halt.

The realizations set in: No one could go sit with him or take him a meal for fear of spreading the virus. He did not know when he could get, or even see, her body; the mortuaries were overflowing in our neighborhood. There would be no service with pews full of mourners, no crowd to make funeral potatoes for. I have never felt so helpless.

Mine is not the only faith that heals itself in a pack and that’s now trying to make sense of mourning in isolation. As the death toll from COVID-19 surges in New York, we’re all grappling with how to grieve. But for religious communities in the city, balancing social-distancing mandates with faith-based duties to the dead has been particularly excruciating.

“For Orthodox Jews, mourning is intensely communal,” Shoshana Greenwald, a member of Congregation Shaarey Torah in Brooklyn, told me. In order to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer offered on behalf of the deceased at the funeral and afterwards, there must be a quorum of ten Jewish men present — a nearly impossible task in the time of social distancing.

Both Judaism and Islam call for a body to be burried swiftly, yet the backlog at morgues and funeral homes has meant families go days or weeks, not hours, before being able to reclaim their loved one. “It’s not just a practical anxiety,” Aisha Ahmad, who grew up in a tight-knit Muslim community in New Jersey, said. “It’s a spiritual anguish because the family isn’t able to fulfill their religious duties.”

Under normal circumstances, Ahmad said, within hours of someone passing, the family’s house would be full of mourners. The furniture would be pushed to one side, and folks would sit on the floor repeating prayers for the deceased, counting out repetitions with kidney beans that would be presented in a box to the family. The more prayers said on behalf of the deceased, the more at peace their soul would be. Now Muslims are coordinating prayers and Quran recitations over Google Docs and Zoom.

“What used to be this reflexive duty you did as part of your faith is now something people are really interrogating,” Ahmad said. “You used to just show up at someone’s house because that is what was done. But now people are reflecting on what connects them to their community.”

In my own reflections, I wondered if my grief was for the sister who had died, for her family, and our community, or if it was for the loss of my usefulness and my discomfort with not being able to work my way out of my feelings.

For much of my life, being diligent has been a way of self-soothing. That diligence is born of my faith, which I’ve always viewed as a practice, not a possession, but it informs other facets of my life, too. It’s why I’m a journalist. Instead of being relegated to sit on the sidelines of terrible things, I can duck under the caution tape with the purpose of someone who has a job to do. I’ve covered a war, the refugee crisis, Hilary Clinton’s watch party the night of the 2016 election. In moments of grief, a great helplessness washes over people; I fend that off with a notebook, a camera, and a looming deadline, the same way I fend off the helplessness of everyday tragedy with food and visits and folding up the chairs after a funeral is finished. Being of use means being in control, no matter what else is looming.

That control, of course, is an illusion, one that the pandemic has laid bare for so many. I tried to cobble it back together. I broke the rules: I dropped off dinner to her husband that first week, then again on Easter. I went inside their apartment, though I kept my distance as he gestured around, bewildered, saying, “She isn’t here now,” as if apologizing for her running late coming home from the store.

I stood in his living room, soaked from one of the ceaseless April storms, proffering a bastilla I’d made for Easter, and learned that they had been married for 38 years. That they had grown up in Guyana before moving to New York. That she loved being in the kitchen, making cook-up rice or other things that reminded them of home. That after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a few years ago, she settled for sitting in the doorway and ‘conducting’ as her husband cooked to her instructions. That he hadn’t gotten to say goodbye.

How could I not reach out for his hand or take him in my arms? You don’t need to profess a faith to believe in the healing power of another’s embrace. Instead, the puddle under me grew larger as I shoved my hands in my pockets and tried to think of what to say.

I spoke with Melissa Dalton-Bradford, the author of On Loss and Living Onward, about how to navigate mourning when every usual impulse meets restrictions and the workarounds feel hollow. She insisted that perfection — that control I so longed for — isn’t the point. “If we just show up, and stumble through, and are imperfect, it is much more strengthening than someone who has the perfect Hallmark response.”

Monday morning, nearly a month after our sister died, we finally held her funeral. The mortuary was so overbooked and busy collecting bodies from the morgue that they couldn’t transfer her casket to our chapel in Midwood. So my husband and I put on our masks and biked through the empty Brooklyn streets out to the Flatlands, where we had a 30-minute time slot in a dimly lit room to remember her life and mourn her loss. There were just eight of us there, spread out in chairs six feet apart. A lone nephew — the only other family member who could be there — stood in the back, streaming the service on his phone to her three children, one of them a nurse at a Chicago hospital.

Her husband had selected hymns from his childhood that none of us knew, but our masks muffled our cluelessness as we stumbled through, singing a cappella. We shared memories of her, many from just the last few years since she joined our congregation. Her husband finished his grief-addled tribute by singing her favorite song one last time for her, and I ugly-cried, filling my one good N95 mask with snot. When our time was up, he went alone to the grave to see her buried, since the cemetery wouldn’t allow more than one person to attend.

It was far from perfect, but those fumbled hymns and murmured prayers pulled us all out of our isolated oblivion for a moment.

“Grief is a beast with a long tail,” Dalton-Bradford reminded me, “and mourning hardly ever keeps pace with it.” But as I biked home through neighborhoods frozen in time, I wondered if this suspended reality we’re in can’t keep us in the emotional trenches with those who need it. Even as we said good-bye at the funeral home, we talked of a proper memorial — with packed pews and a choir and, of course, funeral potatoes — come fall, long after we would have normally moved on.

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