During the Pandemic, Grief is Amplified by Isolation

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It is never a good time for a family member to leave this life, but the strife of isolation makes grieving an even more impossible process right now.

Sol Levinson & Bros., Inc. continues to stay open and adapt to serve its closed community through their tragedies. Staff, primarily from home, answer phones and arrange funerals virtually.

“We’re very proud of our dedicated staff working in difficult situations right now,” said Matt Levinson, president of the funeral home. “They’re passionate about helping the community, so I am very proud and able to honor them.”

Following the state’s limit of 10 people at gatherings, Sol Levinson & Bros. only hosts graveside services with 10 or fewer people. Some funerals fill all 10 spaces, whereas others must cope with a lonely service of only one or two if family members live out of town. The limitations on gatherings also impact shiva.

“That is the most difficult part for families, to not have the community support them,” Levinson said.

Levinson has adapted by holding dignified Jewish burials that balance safety and support. Where families are used to shoveling dirt over their loved one’s grave, Levinson has families wear gloves to toss dirt, rather than share a tool. Where families are used to being held by others, Levinson uses Zoom to bring some solace, with the eulogy recorded. Where families are used to seeing everyone who knew their loved one, Levinson will offer memorial services at a later time in their chapel.

Fram Monument is also adapting. Though temporarily closed, it is available online. It just started doing virtual appointments, which allow families to see the showroom and the design of their memorial, as well as color drawings.

“We are now working with some families to expedite their memorial and combining the unveiling with a delayed shiva opportunity when things are safe again,” owner Steve Venick said.

“This can give families a sense of comfort and closure by seeing their monument for the first time and by giving friends and family an opportunity to visit with them afterwards and offer their sincerest condolences,” Venick said.

Rabbis around the community are similarly evolving by going out of their way to help people through the grieving process.

That includes Rabbi Dana Saroken of Beth El Congregation. The Zoom shivas do bring some solace, she said. When everyone is muted, all can focus on the person telling their stories, “which is so beautiful, I am amazed by the true presence afforded in these zoom talks,” she said.

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation rabbis and cantors call and videoconference with mourners.

BHC Rabbi Andrew Busch hears about some of the challenges self-distancing measures pose to those in mourning. Some have told him about how they are not able to hug their siblings when their parents die.

He can only console them with the hope that tombstone unveilings will offer larger gatherings when possible.

“We are talking and meeting with them as often as possible, just not in person,” Busch said.

For those in need of additional support, Jewish Community Services offers support groups for grievers.

“This is a strange, unprecedented time,” said Donna Kane, JCS grief specialist, who facilitates support groups and counseling.

A new eight-week group begins May 14. Kane is working even more to offer supplemental articles and stories for people to share.

“It’s been a moving experience for everybody to virtually see one another,” Kane said.

“The other positive thing is people are sharing their phone numbers and are much more willing to talk and communicate than when they’re face to face, where there’s not that pressure to go out of their way to talk to them,” said Kane. “It’s the opposite of what you would think would happen: Loneliness is helping people grab opportunities to reach out.”

These opportunities are particularly important in a time when people must say goodbye to saying goodbye.

“There are many incredibly difficult aspects to losing loved ones in this moment of time,” said Saroken. Busch noted besides the lost opportunities for funerals, people have to confront the fact that a family member is dying in a hospital others cannot visit.

Kane suggested friends of mourners send stories or photographs of the deceased, and leave shiva trays on porches. Levinson advised lighting a candle, planting a tree, or “just a phone call goes a long way.”

Levinson confirmed an increase in obituaries, but could not think of the losses in numbers. “We just hope it will end soon and it will impact least of all our community,” Levinson said.

“The grieving process is important for everyone. No matter how they passed away, it is important to be around family to be there for you. I do believe this is making it harder for people to grieve because they don’t have that support,” Levinson said.

But through all this pain, the voices of Jewish Baltimore persist and continue to shoulder suffering.

“The community is still there,” Kane said. “We don’t know how long we’re going to be in this situation. It’s comforting for people to know [others are there]. Being part of the community means taking care of everyone.”

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