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Mourning My Mother during Covid-19

July 20, 2020 | by Ellen Bachner Greenberg

My mother, a Holocaust survivor, dying alone and waiting in limbo four days to be buried were the first signs that respecting the deceased was compromised.

My beloved mother, Ruth Bachner, a Holocaust survivor, passed away from Covid-19 May 11, 2020 alone in a hospital room. During the Holocaust my mother was hidden in a convent, a brave twelve-year-old girl, all alone who feared for her life with no one to protect or comfort her. For as long as I can remember, my mother loved being with people and did not like being alone, which I presume is rooted in the Holocaust. It was heart wrenching that on her deathbed, like in the convent, no one was with my mother to console her, recite Psalm 23, or tell her she was loved.

The pandemic has necessitated significant changes to every aspect of our lives, from how we live, work, and socialize, to how we die. I could not have imagined how different mourning, stripped of many Jewish rituals that honor and respect the deceased and comfort the mourners, would be in comparison to how I mourned for my father in 2008.

I was not mentally prepared when my father, Fred Bachner, passed away. My father had survived Auschwitz and five other concentrations camps and defied death so many times during and after the Holocaust that I believed he could survive everything, including the pneumonia he succumbed to. I followed the ritual for mourning beginning with giving a eulogy at the funeral and sitting shiva, comforted by many who came to console me.

On the last day of shiva I went to synagogue to say Kaddish. There had to have been something very compelling there for me, someone who attended synagogue only on the High Holidays and Yom HaShoah, to return the next day and every day thereafter for the next eleven months. Minyan became a place for me to be with my father, and a place of comfort and understanding with this community, my “Kaddish Buddies.” These Jewish rituals that brought healing to mourners for thousands of years guided me through the stages of mourning, beginning with shock and deep grief to embracing my father’s memory as a blessing.

My parents, Ruth and Fred Bachner

My mother dying alone and waiting in limbo four days to be buried were the first of many signs that honoring and respecting the deceased were compromised.

The graveside service, limited to less than ten people and 15 minutes, did not have a minyan or a eulogy. We were not allowed to accompany my mother to the grave, place her casket in the ground, or shovel earth to fill the grave or cover the casket. Had I not thought to bring a shovel, I would not have been able to put in even a small amount of earth. I was heartbroken my mother was not given the honor and respect she deserved and was once again alone.

After the funeral, I held a remembrance on Zoom where my mother was eulogized and recognized as an Eishet Chayil, a Woman of Valor. Many who knew and loved my mother for decades spoke, remembering her as loving and kind. This remembrance honored my mother and was a source of comfort and healing, unlike anything that followed.

"Family Chateaux" – my mother, her brother, and their parents in Belgium after the war. (My grandparents were hidden in the chateaux as maid and butler)

Shiva in isolation, without visitors to console the mourner and remember the deceased, epitomizes the extent to which Covid19 restrictions stripped rituals of their intended purpose. I was concerned how this would impact my ability to move throughout the stages of bereavement.

On the last day of shiva the candle was still burning, the flame signifying the soul reaching upward was strong. I took this as a sign my mother knew I was not ready for shiva to end or to let her go so I did not extinguish the flame. My selfless and loving mother was holding on for me. I heard her say, “Sweetie, it is okay if you want me to stay a little longer."

Nine days after her burial, the flame was no longer burning. Again my mother spoke to me, “Mamelah, it is nice outside and it is time. Go for a walk with your family.” I knew my mother was right and I took the traditional walk around the block intended to reintroduce myself to normalcy and symbolize I am no longer in isolation. I then went back home to quarantine.

The lines between when shiva began and ended were blurred. I felt stuck and unsettled and needed to grieve properly, to go synagogue to say Kaddish for my mother and find the same comfort and healing I found there when my father passed away. All places of worship were closed, so I attended my synagogue’s services online.

For me, the Zoom chapel was void of everything inherently important to the mourning and healing process. There are no personal connections, only names on a screen. Sympathy, empathy, and hugs cannot be replicated online. Though no fault of the synagogue or the congregants, saying Kaddish with a virtual minyan left me feeling empty. I am finding other ways to mourn and honor my mother. Watching my mother’s testimonials on the Holocaust is a source of comfort and renewed love for my mother and a way for me to connect with her, deepen my understanding, and carry her legacy within me.

The death of a parent is not easy, especially now with restrictions on Jewish rituals that brought healing to mourners for thousands of years. I have an inordinate amount of respect for our Talmudic scholars who had uncanny insight and understanding of man’s psyche and envisioned the mourning process as moving through stages of bereavement thousands of years before modern psychology. Disruptions to these rituals detract meaning from the bereavement process. Their absence highlights their significance.

I am grateful for the words of a wise and spiritual friend who suggested, “The souls of those who passed away now with abbreviated burials and shivas were so pure they ascended directly to heaven and did not require traditional mourning rituals.” These words will be a source of comfort and understanding for me, as will the memory of my beloved mother.

Top photo by Toshi Tasaki


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