Mourning during Lockdown - 3 June 2020
It has been almost 10 weeks since the most unimaginably worst thing happened in my family. The country went into lock down around the 21st March but in my household, we were already in isolation from the week before.
March 28th was my 12-year old Daniel’s birthday, and as is usual in my household we like to have a celebratory Friday night dinner. It was my mother’s birthday on the 25th March and my parents were due back from 6 weeks in South Africa, so it was a perfect time to have the whole family for Shabbat.
Two weeks before we began thinking this may not be possible, but we had no idea then that we would be locked in our houses two weeks later.
The Shabbat before was a very strange Shabbat. Myself and Daniel had been sick all week with what we now know was Coronavirus. We had been self-isolating in my bedroom together for 4 days. My 15-year-old daughter Rachel prepared the Shabbat meal and a table was laid in my room for the two of us whilst the remaining three put a table in the hallway outside the room so we could speak with each other.
A totally surreal situation. As we said kiddush I cried as we had just heard that Julian’s cousin had lost his mother in law to Covid 19. We couldn’t believe it, that someone we knew had died. It felt too close to home and really bought home the risk we were all at. I prayed that we should keep safe and have a swift recovery. By this Shabbat my twin sister was also sick in bed and my brother had started to feel unwell.
Roll on one week and thank gd I was up and walking around the house albeit slowly and breathlessly. I was able to make a Shabbat meal and I remember my children being upset that I had laid the table in the kitchen and not the dining room. I’m too tired, I told them to do it in the other room. They said ok but I could tell they weren’t so happy. As I lit my Shabbat candles, I had realised I hadn’t spoken to my sister Lucy or my brother Stephen to see how they were doing.
On the Wednesday my mother had called me so worried as the three of us were still sick in bed. Thankfully my older sister Sami has not been ill. I told her not to worry as I was beginning to feel stronger and said the other two would begin to gain strength and recover soon too. The next day my mother called me again extremely worried about Stephen and I told her I would FaceTime him to see how he was feeling.
During that FaceTime call he was having no problem with his breathing and was also not suffering from a cough or fever. I told him he had to get up from bed and sit up straight as I was worried about him having pneumonia and lying down would make it worse. Both Julian and I ask if he felt he was struggling for breath, he said no but just that he was so very tired. The last words I ever spoke to him was to promise me he would call an ambulance if his breathing changed in any way or if he struggled to breathe. He promised he would.
So as I lit my candles I prayed for a swift recovery for all of us and berated myself for not speaking to him and Lucy. I would just have to wait till Shabbat went out.
We sat down to eat our dinner and then went and sat in our lounge and played ‘I spy’ with the kids which was not a usual thing for us to do. We were not used to having nothing to do on a Shabbat night as our house is always filled with guests. This Friday my family were meant to be here. My brother should have been sitting at my Shabbat table.
One hour after dinner the telephone rang on the house line which is a very rare occurrence. Daniel ran to the study to see if he recognised the number but didn’t pick up. He came back saying he didn’t know it and the ringing stopped. Immediately it rang again. At this point I ran with him as I suddenly felt very anxious who would be calling. I told him to pick it up.
What happened next is probably something I will never forget. I could just hear my sister Lucy screaming for Daniel to get me. I grabbed the phone and asked very panicky what’s wrong. She started screaming that he had stopped breathing. I didn’t even need to ask who I knew immediately. She told me the ambulance was there then the phone went dead. She called back immediately to say he had died. I don’t really remember much on what happened next. My children said I sank to the floor screaming it can’t be true. Julian was holding me. I just ran up the stairs to get my shoes and a coat and without a thought got in the car. My son Jamie came with me. We drove in a trance like state up the A41 to Edgware.
What we encountered when we got there was like something out of a horror movie.
My sisters and their children and my parents were there. My parents were sat in the car. Every time my mother tried to get out, she was screamed at to get back in.
No one can imagine or should ever have to imagine not being able to grab hold of your mother and father when something like this happens.
The ambulance was outside his house, the paramedics were head to toe in PPE like a science fiction film.
We are all standing in the road meters away from each other too scared to touch one another.
I ran to my sister in law and hugged her. I had been sick for two weeks and was sure I had had the virus which made me less worried to touch her.
I then entered the house to see my brother. There are no words to describe this and I won’t even attempt. I will say though, in a non-coronavirus environment I probably would have thrown myself on him kissing his face and hands.
This was the start of what would be the most surreal and unfair way of mourning that we were about to embark on.
I did touch his hands and I covered him. I then immediately scrubbed my hands and left the room.
My darling niece had by then arrived and was begging to go in to see her father. I did not want this to be the way she would remember him, so I told her not to and the paramedics also told her that. She had not been ill, and we were also scared of her catching it.
Had Jamie not been with me that night I don’t know how I would have managed to stay on my feet. His strength and love held me together. No child should ever have to witness a parent’s grief like this.
For hours we waited outside in our little family bubbles with shear panic and grief on our faces. What could we do? How would we get through this? We couldn’t even touch each other, hold each other, the basic things you need when experiencing a tragedy like this. And it was a tragedy. How could my brother, 53 years old, have left us so suddenly when I had only spoken to him the day before. How can it be true? I had told my mum the day before he would be ok! Why him why not me or Lucy we were so sick too! These are some of the things running through my head.
After waiting for the police for what was several hours, we knew we had to leave and go home. How could we leave his wife Laura by herself how could we not be sitting with him as would happen in normal circumstances.
Jamie and I got into the car and drove home in complete panic. Reality had started to set in and panic that he had died from Covid 19. What did it mean to me I had touched him? Had I really had it over the past two weeks? Could I get it again? What if I hadn’t had it in the first place? What danger had I put myself in? I immediately called my GP who has been my doctor for over 27 years. After the initial shock of me calling him as it was Shabbat and telling him what had happened, he then calmly spoke to me the whole journey home. Explaining that I had to take precaution that I didn’t spread the virus. He told me that Jamie and I should get undressed outside the house leaving all our clothes and shoes outside then get straight into hot showers, scrubbing ourselves and washing our hair. He then told us we would have to isolate in separate rooms for the next few days and watch out for symptoms or for me getting more sick.
Unimaginable as it seems I began the worst 48 hours of my life. Sitting alone in my room not be able to be held by Julian or my children. Not being able to speak to anyone in my family as it was Shabbat.
Julian came to the bedroom door several times during that night to check on me. I did not sleep one wink so scared of what had happened, so scared for my parents on how they would cope all alone in their house with none of us holding them.
When Julian woke in the morning, he came straight to our bedroom door asking what he could do. He asked whether he should get our good friend Rabbi Mendel Cohen. I said yes immediately. He walked over to Mendel’s house and told him what had happened. They came back straightaway together. I went outside to stand on my balcony and Mendel was below in the garden speaking to me trying to calm me down. He then went to Julian’s father with him to tell Abraham and then onto my sister Lucy who was so relieved to see her Rabbi appear from nowhere. A true friend and an immense support.
Other friends came that day to see from the garden all in shock and not knowing what to say as what could one say!
Finally, the painful hours of Shabbat went out and I could finally speak to my family. I remember crying and crying and my sister Sami telling me I had to calm down and keep some control. The fact that all the other family had been speaking all day meant they had time to try and digest what was happening whereas for me I had this huge release of emotion. Suddenly my phone was going mad messages pinging calls coming in. Everything was so so overwhelming and I was still stuck in my room by myself.
Finally on Sunday we made the decision to come out of our rooms. The feeling of having Julian and the kids holding me was wonderful but also overwhelming. I remember being on the floor sobbing in their arms.
The effects of Coronavirus on a situation like this was immense. Firstly, we could not get my brother released from the hospital for 5 days. 5 days of being in limbo stuck in our houses not being able to begin the mourning process.
By Monday my sisters and sister in laws, parents and niece were tested to see if we had the virus. That in itself was like a black comedy trying to fill tiny vials of blood ourselves to hand back to the courier.
The results came back within hours. My brother’s wife Laura and myself had had the virus and now had antibodies. Lucy was still carrying the virus and the rest who tested came back negative.
At the same time Julian had had the swab test and was waiting for results.
By Wednesday we knew the lavoya was happening. We also knew that we could only have 10 people there. We would not let my parents leave the house as we were too scared, they would catch it. Lucy and Jason couldn’t come as they were still in isolation and Julian couldn’t come with me as his tests results came back that morning positive to still having the virus.
Yet again Jamie had to witness the pain I was about to go through. Mendel came and collected us to drive us to the cemetery as I knew I would not be able to drive.
As we were driving up the M1 I kept on thinking about how six months ago we had Julian’s mother’s funeral. There were probably around 600-700 people there and I remember feeling like they were a wall holding us up at the graveside. How was I going to get through my brother’s funeral with no one there to support us? How unnatural this felt. I also remember thinking that when Julian was sitting shiva he only had two nights, as the shiva was cut by Yom Kippur. At the time I thought it was unfair for him not to have the usual amount of time so that he would have that comfort around him in the first week. Now I was about to embark on sitting shiva by myself not even my family sitting next to me. How could we have a zoom shiva, how would that feel like we are even sitting shiva?
As it happens whilst we were at the cemetery I began to think how I was glad no one was there. That no one had to see the horrendous pain we were in or how we reacted when Stephen's coffin was brought out of the room or when it was lowered into the ground. I don’t think I would ever want my close friends to have watched that.
My only wish was that Julian was by my side, that he was the one holding me up and that Jamie didn’t have to do it for him. Yet again Jamie was my rock as I know Avi would have been had he been in the country and not stuck in Israel.
We somehow managed to to get through this dreadful 40 minutes and made our way to my parents’ house. They had been listening by phone to the service whilst being on FaceTime with Lucy. Mendel came to my parent’s front garden and we all sat outside distanced as he said prayers for my mother and father and we virtually hugged them, so so near but so far from them. We then all journeyed onto to Lucy’s house where again Mendel said prayers for her.
Then suddenly we are in our cars and travelling back home to sit shiva alone.
Zoom had become our reality that’s how we saw each other each day as a family that should have been sitting with each other each day.
Friends and family are visiting you by FaceTime or phone calls. Non-stop all day. By the third day Julian confiscated my phone like a child as he was desperate for me to get time to rest before evening prayers.
Strangely the zoom shiva was comforting and in some ways more comforting than a normal shiva. Every night there were hundreds of people on the zoom. Hundreds of people listening to every word being spoken and being able to see you. It felt dignified that everyone was listening that no one was chatting in the hallway which so often happens.
Once the shiva was over reality hits home that we are in lockdown and that we can’t really begin to start the healing process as we haven’t really begun to mourn.
How can one mourn someone they have lost that they love so much when you haven’t even been able to be in one room with all your family.
It was easy to try and convince yourself that Stephen was also in his house just like the rest of my family were. But then it would hit you straight in the face that this is not true, and the panic begins to rise again.
The one blessing we did have is that we have had unbelievable weather. This has meant that we could go and sit at different times at the back of my parent’s garden. Almost like a watch over them so that for most of the day they would not be by themselves. As comforting as it is it is not a replacement of the craving, we have to touch each other again.
Grief hits everybody in different ways and how we all deal with it is different too. Laura has to wake up every day and feel he is physically not in the house with her. My parents have to learn to deal with the loss of a child which is unbearable. Alex my niece the loss of her father. Although she wasn’t living with him it doesn’t make that loss feel less.
Sami, Lucy and I the loss of a brother. Each of us feeling different emotions as each of us had a different relationship with him but all of us feeling that loss that we are no longer a four but now a three.
Someone explained that when you lose someone you love it leaves a hole inside you. I feel that. I feel that something is missing. I feel, will I ever feel full happiness again. But I know that I will, but it will be a different kind. The hole doesn’t get smaller but life around it gets bigger. We know there will be better days as we are not the only people to lose someone they love and if it didn’t get better then the world would not be able to continue living. We know life moves on. The only difference is that this lockdown and this terrible virus that ended up on our doorstep has stopped the world moving on. Everyone is limited to what they can now do and lots of people are enjoying it. Who wouldn’t? Sunshine, no school, limited work, it’s like a holiday. However, if you are one of these families that have been touched by Covid 19 it doesn’t feel like this.
It feels like Groundhog Day! It feels like every day you are just hoping you get through the day. That when you call your parents or other members in the family that they are coping for that day.
It means that instead of being able to try and live a normal life and do your shopping or take your kids to school, go and collect your parents to take them out for the day to keep them occupied and begin the healing process, you can’t!
Instead you spend the day going over in your head what has happened thinking could something have been done to save him, why didn’t he get to hospital, how are we going to get through this.
I chose to have some counselling which has helped a little and also to read about loss. I would like to quote from the book I’ve read by Sasha Bates - Languages of Loss. She wrote something that really connected with me. She wrote ‘
‘It feels like there will be no end to it, ever. And the truth be told, actually there isn’t an end, although it will change shape. The idea of grief as a path can be upsetting because paths tend to have destinations and with grief there is no destination. It never leaves you. It does not go away, and you do not get through it, you just learn to manage it better and hope that it intrudes less, or at the very least that you might be able to wrestle back some sort of control over when and how to let it through, that grief never gets smaller but you get bigger around it’
I get this and it helps me to understand the journey I am on. I also understand that I am not just grieving my brother Stephen. I am grieving the loss of the way my family was before the 27th March particularly my parents. I pray every day they will be able to enjoy the happy times ahead that we will have, because we will have them, be it bar mitzvah’s weddings or please gd new babies in the family.
My counsellor told me that grief is like a friend, at the moment it is out staying it’s welcome and here for a long time but eventually it will go and other friends like love and happiness will be here and grief will just visit once in a while but it is important to welcome it when it comes because it is good to allow yourself to feel your emotions.
Losing someone is very hard and even harder during these terrible times of Coronavirus. What we have been through is a tragedy, a real trauma, but it has been magnified 1000 fold by the situation we are in.
Judaism has these rituals for mourning and I can see how important they are in the healing process and I feel robbed that we couldn’t do this naturally amongst our communities.
We have all been blessed with incredible support from friends. We had our Pesach Angels that organised our food for the whole of Pesach, not just my family but 7 households! My closest friends who organised the first Shabbat during the shiva week.
I couldn’t be more blessed. The phone calls, the emails and messages. They all went some way in helping me through this. Then I have those friends that even 10 weeks on are still checking in with me knowing that when I say I’m ok I’m not really but just want me to know that they are there.
No one really knows what to say or do because how could they but whatever they do say and do has been been my wall, the wall of support I didn’t have that day of Stephen’s funeral. A wall for which I will be forever grateful.
I thank everyone of those friends for everything. I often feel embarrassed to not say I’m ok because I don’t always want to sound miserable but as one of my closest friends told me ‘it doesn’t matter if you are low that’s why we call to make you feel better’ and they do.
I pray for the day this whole nightmare is over and I can sit in a room holding my family in my arms. Who knows when it will be?
I have tried very hard not to lose faith in Hashem, I truly can’t understand why this happened to my brother especially as he was finally in a place of true happiness but I know we can’t ask why Hashem has his reasons and until we meet him we will never know.
May Hashem give strength to my parents to my beautiful niece Alex, to Laura his wonderful wife and to my gorgeous sisters. That we should get through this without changing too much and that his memory will always be a blessing on us.