Arts·Pandemic Diaries

How do we grieve those we lose during this pandemic when we cannot attend their funerals?

I lost both my grandparents to COVID-19. But I will not lose my will to honour their legacies.

I lost both my grandparents to COVID-19. But I will not lose my will to honour their legacies

Jess Goldman's bubbie and zayde, Ruth (Rivka) and Eugene (Isser) Goldman. (Jess Goldman)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

Four months after my bubbie and zayde passed away, I lit a shabbos candle for the first time. I had inherited my bubbie's shabbos candlestick holders, and though I didn't grow up regularly celebrating shabbos, it felt important to light them.

My bubbie and zayde, Ruth (Rivka) and Eugene (Isser) Goldman, contracted the coronavirus somewhere between Florida and their flight back to Toronto in March. They died a month later within four days of one another. It was a huge loss. And soon, the fear of forgetting them plagued me.

Ever since I can remember, I've had this recurring nightmare. The premise is simple: I can never clearly see. No matter how much blinking I do, my vision slips on everything. This inability to grasp my reality is mundane yet so horrific — to always almost see. When I lost my grandparents, this fear became real. Without the immediacy of their voices and physical beings, I fear I will always almost-remember them. This sometimes feels worse than not remembering them at all.

Jess Goldman's bubbie and zayde, Ruth (Rivka) and Eugene (Isser) Goldman. (Jess Goldman)

The circumstances of quarantining have further amplified this. None of us were allowed to attend their funerals. On the morning of my bubbie's funeral, dressed and on our way out the door, we received a call informing us that new rules had come down and families were no longer allowed in cemeteries. My father fought over the phone with the funeral director to get the burial live-streamed mere minutes before the cantor began the ceremony. We all covered our ears from the screaming and shook in disbelief. We might miss her funeral because of someone's technical incompetence. The black computer screen was a window with curtains pulled shut.

In the end, her burial was live-streamed. But besides this, all funeral rites except the kaddish were taken from us. The cantor scooped up some dirt in our honour and let it fall onto my bubbie's coffin. This part — the dirt hitting her white coffin — I can only imagine on account of the limited view of a smartphone.

To watch a funeral through a screen is like almost being there but also not being there at all. We still haven't been able to visit their graves and I am thinking about earth so much, the smell of dirt, wanting somehow to be closer to them. Weddings can be redone, but funerals cannot. Death cannot. It pains me that I wasn't with them when they died. That I didn't toss any earth into their graves. My little handfuls of grief, my own worlds of pain have to rest somewhere else. So I've been writing poems full of dirt and worms, Yiddish and fragrant flowers. Poems full of smell and guttural sound. Conjuring poems.

Many of us have complicated relationships with our families and our ancestry. Yet now, when our elders are dying en masse, I believe more than ever in the importance of carrying on these traditions — and if we are denied them, creating them out of whatever we can find in our limited circumstances. A good friend of mine once said, "You invest the divinity in your ritual objects; you're the one who gives your instruments their sacred power."

Jess Goldman lighting shabbos candles. (Jess Goldman)

This is a time of mass yearning for what was. But it's also an opportunity to patch together better systems and networks of support that many people have, for so long, always-almost seen. It is time to invest the mundane with sacred mobilizing power and align our imperfect selves with movements like Black Lives Matter, Status for All, and Artists4LongTermCare. Let's honour our dead elders by carrying on their legacies of community resistance and cultural resilience. Let's make quilts out of old socks, altars with all those broken iPods we can no longer buy parts for. Let's stretch gimp across tin cans and play our traditional songs, or even just make noise. Let's, as they say in Yiddish, "Tuches afn tish!" — put our asses on the table.

I carefully placed my dollar-store candles into the silver mouths of the candlestick holders, setting fire to them with a barbeque lighter. Then, I Googled the shabbos prayer and recited it — committing, I'm sure, some sacrilege along the way.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Jess Goldman is a graduate of Concordia's Creative Writing Program. Her fiction has appeared in Room Magazine's 41.3 Queer Issue. Find her on Instagram at @yentlthewriter.

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