What Sitting Shiva in Quarantine Really Looks Like

As my family grieves separately, I’m questioning the right way to sit shiva, given that none of the normal rituals seem to apply.

My grandmother died peacefully in her sleep due to complications of COVID-19 on what was otherwise an uneventful Wednesday morning. My dad called me as I was sautéing a bunch of garlic in leftover beef fat; I could tell in his voice immediately. I asked what I could do to help, and he told me he just wanted brisket, which he was planning on picking up that evening in exchange for some vegetables — a convoluted food swap we’ve been doing every week since quarantine started.

At 5 p.m. on the dot (just kidding, it was 5:45, we were obviously all running late) my dad showed up at my apartment, wearing a mask and gloves. We didn’t hug, didn’t kiss; instead, I handed him a pound of brisket, and he handed me some overstuffed Tupperware and a bottle of wine in return. I couldn’t give him physical comfort or closeness, but I could give him sustenance.

I’m sad to say that I wasn’t close with my grandmother. She lived in New Jersey when I was young, and by the time we moved her up to Massachusetts, her mental faculties were slipping. The memories that I do have with her all center around food. Eating is a good thing to do when you’re visiting someone you can’t necessarily have extended conversation with. My parents, my cousins, my aunt, my uncle, and I would congregate at grandma’s assisted living facility and eat off paper plates with plastic utensils in a multi-purpose room. Usually we got Bertucci’s. It may not have been gourmet, but it was a nice way to gather.

I’ve only sat shiva twice before, but I’ve attended a good few. I’m 23 now and my takeaway of what it means to bring comfort to the bereaved is the same as it was when I was 8: feed them, and then feed them some more. When my dad’s father died, I think we ate casseroles for three straight weeks, which was unfortunate because I had not yet reached the age where I accepted compound foods.

Now, as my family grieves — separately, I’m isolating at my apartment, while they’re at my childhood home — I’m questioning the right way to sit shiva, given that none of the normal rituals seem to apply, or apply all too well that we’ve already been doing them. Jewish law teaches us that “mourners do not work during the shiva period and, for the most part, stay at home.” Likewise, legislators in Massachusetts have advised us to stay home except to get food or necessary health care. We’re also taught that while sitting shiva, “mourners also do not participate in parties, concerts, shows, movies or similar events that are celebratory in nature,” which aligns awfully well with the state recommendation that going outside for walks is okay, but we shouldn’t be using playground or public structures of any kind. We’re even instructed that “a mourner should not be concerned with their personal appearance at this time” and many people will not wear makeup or clean clothes. I’ve been social distancing for more than a month, and my roommate can confirm that I haven’t cared about how I looked for a single moment of it. I’ve even given up on day pajamas — it’s night pajamas all the time now.

All in all, I’ve inadvertently been sitting shiva for a month, mourning the state of the world, although I haven’t been thinking of it that way. Now, I’m not sure how to mark my grandmother’s passing, since doing what shiva asks of me won’t be any different.

We buried my grandmother five days after she passed — outside the ideal 24-hour window, but we’re lucky to have been able to have a funeral at all. Ten of us were allowed to attend, all wearing masks, and we couldn’t approach the grave until after she’d already been interred. We were told the grounds people would leave us a small pile of dirt so that we could complete the burial symbolically, but they forgot. Instead, we covered her grave with popcorn and chocolate bars.

My grandmother loved Skinny Pop. Loved it. She wrote an impassioned letter to their CEO (as she was wont to do; Michelle Obama got a few over the years) and the company wrote back thanking her and gifting her an absurd amount of popcorn. Apparently, she gave every bag away to other residents of her assisted living facility. I’d never heard that story before the rabbi from the home told it at her funeral.

The chocolate bars, though, that was a part of my grandmother’s personality I was intimately familiar with. Every time I saw her, without fail, she gave me a Hershey’s chocolate bar. For my birthday and for Hanukkah, she’d send one. I never used to check mail at my apartment, and my dad would remind me, after three weeks, that I probably should. I’d find the Hershey’s bar — folded in half to fit the smaller envelope if she couldn’t find a standard size — melted and reformed many times in my mailbox. It didn’t matter, it still tasted the same. I don’t know if my grandmother even liked chocolate; she might’ve just liked giving it away.

We held a shiva service a few hours after the funeral, over Zoom. We were all muted, except the rabbi, staring awkwardly at our screens from our respective living rooms. Everyone over age 40 was holding their iPhone uncomfortably below their chin, giving real “is this thing on?” energy. Nobody brought food, obviously, but the sheer magnitude of attendees was obvious when viewed as a grid on Zoom. As my father said, “The support everyone has given may be ‘virtual,’ but it is by no means simulated, and it’s very real to us.”

And I’ve been doing my own little rituals to honor my grandmother, even if they’re not the traditional customs that Judaism provides. I’ve put on clean clothes every day this week, for the first time in all of social distancing. I’m still working, because realistically who can afford to take seven days off right now, but I’m trying to be more conscious with how I fill my extra time (one can only watch so many seasons of Community). I’ve FaceTimed with my parents over dinner twice, which is the most times in a week that we’ve “shared a meal” since I moved out. We don’t necessarily talk about grandma, but we all know why we’re calling so often.

I’m not sure what else there is to do when faced with a loss except eat, and be with your loved ones — even if the definition of “be with” is a little loose these days. I don’t think this loss will feel real until life in general doesn’t feel like sitting shiva, but in the meantime, I’ll definitely be making myself a casserole, eating some Skinny Pop, and giving away a Hershey’s bar.

Header image design by Grace Yagel; original illustration by Cary Cochran/Getty Images.

Brenna Sorkin

Brenna Sorkin is an experience designer in Cambridge, MA. She frequently fantasizes about running a bakery full-time and milling her own flour (which her roommate has expressly forbidden in the apartment).

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