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Amid the pandemic, stories of grief upended

Ahmed Naser, who goes by Abu Ayoob, is pictured with his children Nusaybah, second from left, and Ayoob, right, and his father, Mohamed Naser, in May 2018. Mohamed Naser was active and fit, riding his bike 10 to 15 miles every other day, before he got sick. (Abu Ayoob)
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When I think of my mother’s death four years ago, and the days and weeks that followed, my fists clench and my breath quickens. My mind tries to shut down as I recall sitting by her bed, watching her vanish into a drug-addled, wordless wisp. Marching through a mass of mourners and seeing the pity reflected back in their faces. The finality of the thuds of shovels-full of dirt landing on her casket in the ground.

Yet as the coronavirus pandemic rewrites the way we die and grieve, I find myself feeling profoundly grateful for those experiences.

I know from many years of religion reporting that death is complicated. In these critical life passages, ceremonies and customs sometimes mean far more, or far less than people expect. Yearnings or doubts long-buried thrust themselves to the surface. New rituals are born.

So what does it mean to grieve in the coronavirus era? Post audio producer Rennie Svirnovskiy and I interviewed a range of people about death in the time of a pandemic and found a surprising patchwork quilt of grief. Edited for brevity and clarity, here are some of their stories.

The coronavirus will force us to change how we mourn

Rabbi Bruce Kahn, retired Navy chaplain and congregational rabbi from Montgomery County, Md., on officiating tele-funerals and counseling the grieving in the covid-19 era:

“Kirk got thousands of letters, and went to every high school in Montgomery County every year, no matter how much pain he was in, how difficult it was,” Kahn said of Kirk Simon, who became a well-known local evangelist for road safety after becoming seriously disabled years ago in a cycling accident. Simon died April 9, not of covid-19, Kahn said.

The virus shutdown meant there could be no service, including a memorial that Simon — once an avid kayaker — had long ago planned by the Potomac River.

Kahn has been counseling Simon’s distraught mother, who was grieving the loss of this ritual. “She was not able to carry out the ceremonies she would have liked to have that she knew he would like to have, with family and so many friends, that would really celebrate his life and ease the grief for her and the family,” Kahn said. “And that’s the consequence of covid-19 and that’s what I’m running into everywhere. It’s a time of crisis and it just deepens it when people need to come together and they can’t. It just hurts more.”

Jewish burials, like Muslim burials, are normally held quickly after death.

“In the Jewish world, it is mostly understood that if you intend to go to a funeral, you stop what you are doing and get to where the funeral is being held as quickly as possible. The funeral takes priority. That honors the deceased and comforts the mourners," Kahn said.

“When someone dies, you want to, you know, hold the ceremonies. You want to bring closure to facing death. You want to have the celebration of life, you want to have the closeness that people joining you in the mourning process provides. ... So if you’re having to delay, that’s not a good thing. And this has to be.”

Yet Kahn is noticing that clergy — even remotely — can help people with what they symbolize. Right now, they can be stand-ins for the ceremonies and rituals that will eventually happen, for the idea that the mourner is moving in the right direction.

“I’m reminded of a line from one of our prayer books. … It says: ‘Moment by moment we choose, and if we choose rightly and often enough, we can restore the broken fragments to wholeness,’ ” Kahn said. “There’s a term in Hebrew for wholeness called ‘shelamoot’ from the word ‘shalom.’ And my understanding is that every religious system, and every human being, pursues wholeness. And when a group of people find that they have very similar ways of doing that, then a religious community starts to form. But it can be a religion of one, too. But the point is that everybody, by virtue of being human, is seeking this.”

We’re used to grieving together. What happens when we can’t?

Ahmed Naser, who goes by the name Abu Ayoob, 33, a Brooklyn businessman, on losing his father, Mohamed Naser, to covid-19 on March 26, at age 66.

Ahmed Naser’s father, an Egyptian immigrant who built his own accounting business, was vibrant and healthy, riding his bike 10 or 15 miles every other day, until he got sick. His son still agonizes over whether the elder Naser received the attention he needed in the hospital, and whether he was wrongly intubated.

Although Ahmed could only see his father through a glass window during his final days, his memories are of a man fully content in his dying.

“It was difficult. You know, we’re not going to deny that fact, but we knew and my father knew that whatever God had decreed for him, it was what was best for him," the son said. "He was patient, he was expecting, you know, the reward from God. And up until the last moments, he was happy and he was content with his condition.

“He would ask me [in the hospital] to, you know, send him certain recitations of the Koran, which is the word of God that he would listen to. And at times or when I received his phone, I would notice that he would open my messages and not even bother looking at the other messages because his mind was somewhere else. His mind was that he wanted to concentrate on that relationship with God.”

Mohamed Naser didn’t have a chance to tell the family what specifically he may have wanted for a service, or memorial. And because of the virus, traditions were carried out differently. The ritual washing became a dry ablution — akin to what the Koran permits Muslims if they have no water access, such as if they are in the desert, Ahmed Naser said. The typical funeral with mourners shoulder-to-shoulder in prayer became a socially distanced gathering on a closed-down Brooklyn street block.

Yet to Ahmed, what was important to his father was communicated over the decades.

“He didn’t need to give us any final words because that’s how he lived his life every chance he got,” Ahmed said. “He advised us with the perfect advice. He advised us what to do, how to do it, the right way to do it. He would tell us: ‘Don’t do it the wrong way.’ He lived his life giving us his final words.”

Losing someone during the virus feels uniquely bad, Ahmed said, but the core of the experience feels universal, timeless.

“You feel, of course, a huge loss, a huge void in your life. And all you see is the father, the community member, the person you went to for advice, the person you went to for help. He’s gone. All right. But sometimes you feel like, you know, with everything that’s happening, you feel like there’s a big movie that you’re in or like you’re dreaming. And, you know, somebody’s going to wake you up,” he said.

"But the flip side to it is, you know what? Death is a reality for everyone. Every single one of us knows we’re going to die. You know you’re going to die. I know I’m going to die.”

His dad was sick, and now he isn’t suffering anymore.

“And one day we’re going to meet, one day we’re going to gather again,” he said. “This is just a transitional phase. You know, it’s a period. And we’re going to come back and we’re going to meet again.”

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Todd Valentine, 39, on losing his uncle, George Valentine, a Washington city attorney who was the fourth coronavirus death reported in the District:

“My Uncle George was a phenomenally nice guy, incredibly generous, funny, witty, really, really smart. I actually lived with him for about seven years when I first moved to Washington, D.C., from Florida,” Valentine said, recalling his early years working on Capitol Hill.

The mens’ last long conversation was on a Sunday in March, when George, 66, wasn’t feeling great. They spoke for roughly 45 minutes about work, sports, Todd’s daughters, the upcoming Easter holiday, getting together. George thought he was having a bad bout of allergies. By Wednesday, he was hospitalized, and on Friday, March 27, he was gone.

There was no preparation, Todd said.

As the key close relative nearby, Todd was called upon to communicate with doctors, to be his uncle’s health surrogate.

“I knew George held me in very special regard,” he said. “He had close friends in D.C. but asked me to take care of him and I don’t think he knew this would be his final hours or days.”

The virus has elongated the family’s grieving, but not in an entirely bad way, Todd said.

“We are still talking about George and telling stories and memories on group chats and phone calls, so I think the grieving in some way — coronavirus has caused us to kind of take a step back,” he said. “Time has slowed down so much to where we’re able to appreciate each other as a family more and also talk about George, share memories in a way I don’t think we would have otherwise. If it was in any other circumstance, we would have flown to Miami and been back in D.C. already and that chapter would have been closed. … We haven’t hit all those stages of grief yet.”

It was well known in the family that George wanted his body cremated and his ashes spread on South Beach in Florida. Todd chuckled at the reality that such a plan is illegal, so the family is still planning what kind of memorial to give him.

“Everyone has a very unique relationship with death, with the loved one who passed, and it’s never a one-to-one kind of thing — it’s as unique as your fingerprint. ... And no one ever dies in a way that you can honor their life fully," Todd said.

“Again, there is no perfect recipe on how to deal with death. George made the most of his life, he left a huge impact and to that extent, doing the best you can every day as if it were your last.”

You can hear Kahn, Ahmed Naser, Todd Valentine and others talk about grief and how the novel coronavirus has impacted it on The Washington Post’s podcast, Post Reports. The segment will publish Monday.