Walking through the valley of deep darkness during a global pandemic was never a thought that rose to my mind from the moment my mother, Linda Kellner, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2018…until it did. Numerous times during the last two years, her cancer had stopped responding to treatment and I tried to brace myself for the moment darkness would fall. There was always another treatment, a light of hope, and more time for my mom to “build memories.” In early March, as COVID-19 news flowed like lava, I began to worry about my mom contracting the disease. “Mom can’t get this. Her immune system is compromised. Can you do treatment on Long Island instead of trekking to the city? Be sure to wear a mask. Try not to come into contact with anyone,” I repeatedly said to my parents.
Then, the report from my mom’s doctor exploded like a bomb. Her cancer stopped responding to treatment. “We have something else to try but comfort care may be the best option.” The fighting heart beating inside my mom gave her strength to try, until it gave her strength to decide that it was time. Time to stop the chemicals, stop the pills, and pray for comfort in the time she had left.
In the moments she was making these decisions, states were shutting down, schools were closing , and the world was changing around us. I realized that it would not be COVID-19 that would take her life but the cancer raging out of control in her body. I would not be by her side to hold her hand, to sing her out of this would into the next. My brother and I would not be with my father as he cared for her with his compassionate heart. We would not be together as families often are. This loss would not be the same, this grief, unique to this time and this place.
As her daily hours of rest turned to eternal rest on April 14, 2020, and the shadows creeped into this new valley in which we descended, there was so much anxiety. Because my mom died in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic, her funeral would be delayed ten days. The anxiety and the pain surged. “Would Zoom work for the funeral? Would there be enough cell coverage? Would anyone there be able to figure it out on a phone? What would happen if it poured like the forecast predicted? I am not going to be able to shovel the earth,” were the questions and thoughts raging through my mind.
Then it was time. Zoom worked. Hundreds of people attended from all over the country. People who were my mom’s students, mentees, family, friends of the family, my congregational community, showed up. Technology gave us a gift that would we would not have considered under “normal” circumstances. On motzei Shabbat, we logged into Zoom again for shivah minyan, then Sunday night another. Throughout these painful moments many of our dear colleagues shepherded us through moments of memory and prayer, creating a community of comfort found in one-inch squares. No, there weren’t the conversations to distract me or friends entering my unlocked door, but there was prayer, music, and memory, and an opportunity to say Kaddish. The week of shivah continued with some personal, private opportunities to say Kaddish. Each day helped to build a ramp up the mountain of the valley enabling me to see a glimmer of light.
Kaddish is healing whether you say it physically together or “socially distanced.” Knowing people are showing up for you and are there for you is what gives those familiar words their healing power. I was surprised how Zoom shivah could bring healing. Yes, I had led a Zoom minyan earlier in the pandemic for a congregant and did the best I could to create meaning for the mourners. For me, shivah was both virtual and real. As I lifted my eyes to the mountains, God’s help came through today’s tool of connection. In a time of rough waters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom steadied the rocking ship and tied together a grieving family with a supportive community. In our loneliness we found community, in our darkness we found light, and, in our pain, we found healing.
The power of the Holy, Mysterious One works in remarkable and inexplicable ways. Sometimes through Zoom, but always through hearts of compassion who reach out with needle and thread to sew together a broken heart.
Rabbi Rick Kellner is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio.