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It’s Hard To Grieve The Dead From Afar And Hold The Living Close

A family sits shiva remotely on Zoom for an elderly relative who died of heart failure, April 11, 2020 in New Canaan, Conn.(Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
A family sits shiva remotely on Zoom for an elderly relative who died of heart failure, April 11, 2020 in New Canaan, Conn.(Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Donna Raasch Spector, technically my ex sister-in-law but always my family, became a statistic when she died of COVID-19 on May 12. She is one of about 150 people in her Central New York county killed by a coronavirus that should never have reached her.

In normal times, I would have driven the 300 miles from my Newton home to the Syracuse cemetery where she was buried. I might have spoken at her funeral. I certainly would have hugged her children as they grieved. I absolutely would have taken comfort in all the people who loved Donna coming together to share stories and cry.

Instead, sequestered in my home during a pandemic, I sat on my couch watching the funeral stream live on Facebook, struggling to hear and decipher the service through the wind’s howls.

Tears rolled down my face as I watched my brother shovel dirt onto his ex-wife’s grave. I held my breath while my niece Sarah crossed her arms and clutched at her body as if only she could deliver a hug of comfort to herself. I wept listening to my nephew David’s voice break when he read a poem about remembering the good instead of grieving the gone.

My husband and daughter watched with me, each in their separate chairs, but I might as well have been alone.

Donna Spector, second from right, laughs with family at the author's wedding in 1989. (Courtesy)
Donna Spector, second from right, laughs with family at the author's wedding in 1989. (Courtesy)

If I’d been at the grave that would soon hold my sister-in-law’s ashes, my husband would have held me as I cried. We might have held hands or linked arms, ensuring that our bodies touched somewhere. In our living room, though, he sat several feet away from where I was crying alone. He didn’t offer me a shoulder or a tissue, but I don’t believe he was oblivious to or dismissive of my grief. He, too, was witnessing a new and unnatural experience — one that left him feeling sad and numb at the same time. Watching David and Sarah’s pain remotely left him feeling just as helpless in the surrealism playing out before us as I was.

Watching a funeral remotely magnified the physical distance between the cemetery and our living room. Watching Donna’s funeral remotely together highlighted the emotional distance this pandemic has created between two people who have been together constantly.

It’s not that he didn’t want to comfort me; my husband is typically very much in tune with my emotional needs. More likely, watching a funeral on a 44” television screen stripped away the togetherness that so often accompanies memorial services. We were together, but alone, unable to reach each other’s sadness. Instead of crying into his arms, I hugged my body, trying to make sense of a loss that shouldn’t be.

In many ways, I started losing Donna years ago when she had a succession of strokes. We could no longer talk on the phone, opine about politics or smoke a joint together. Gone were the days of her reading everything I wrote, buying me books and cheering me on. I’d visit whenever I returned to Syracuse, my hometown, but our time together usually left me feeling sad and deprived. I knew that seeing me and hearing about my children delighted her, but I missed our connection, the one we forged when she’d first started dating my brother 40 years ago and maintained after their divorce.

The author's friend and ex sister-in-law, Donna Spector in 2011. (Courtesy)
The author's friend and ex sister-in-law, Donna Spector in 2011. (Courtesy)

There were times during her post-stroke years that I couldn’t find her inside the disabled body she now occupied. She always recognized me but she sometimes slept through the majority of the visit. More often, though, despite her deficiencies, her inability to control her movements and her slurred speech, we’d lock eyes and I’d see the sister-in-law, the friend, I loved. It might have taken her five minutes to convey one thought but her spirit was strong and present. She was saddled by deficits, but she was Donna.

When my father died 15 years ago, I came to understand the importance of community during times of deep sorrow. For nearly a year, I said the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, at my synagogue. Prior to suffering such a momentous loss, I neither understood nor approved of the Jewish law requiring the attendance of 10 people to support mourners while they recite the words of the Kaddish. But, for 11 months, I needed those people to hold me up. The hugs, words of sympathy and good morning smiles sustained me through my grief.

Today, during a pandemic, I use my phone to share my sadness. I try to support David and Sarah from my living room, while they limit their own movements so many miles away. Knowing I’ll see them eventually provides little solace.

I hope a long time passes before I attend another funeral. And I pray that I’ll never be a remote witness to such sadness again.

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Gail Spector Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Gail Spector is a freelance journalist, author, editor and community news instructor. She writes from Newton, Mass. and Cape Cod.

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