Who would have imagined, that it would take another pandemic – 102 years later in the isolation of a COVID-19 lockdown, me with my five-year-old daughter Theo, who was in her own state of keening grief and shock at being cut off from her Kindergarten teacher, class and beloved babysitter, for me to realize that my elderly Bubby had not been MESHUGE (translates as crazy in Yiddish) after all. No, my grandmother was not crazy. She had actually been in a state of perpetual, unresolved, agonizing grief since 1918, when her first born and only daughter Ethel died in the most severe pandemic in recent history – until Covid. Fewer than 24 hours after becoming symptomatic, 12-year-old Ethel was carried out of their NYC tenement in a body bag. The grieving family, my Bubby, Grandpa and their sons (my uncles) a toddler and six-year-old at the time, were instructed to quarantine; they were contagious. There was no communal funeral, no week-long shiva mourning period seated on the floor “close to” the deceased while loved ones, neighbors and community members offered food, comfort, consolation and ritual prayers. I can only imagine that a few years later, when the world finally returned to “normal”, that my Bubby was still grieving for Ethel. I bet it was as raw as if it was yesterday, and Bubby, along with millions of others who had lost their family members, to the Flu Pandemic of 1918 or the First World War, were in no way ready to “move on”.
It is only in the last year that I have realized how my family has been racked by Bubby’s grief for three generations. It has reverberated through her sons, my uncles to their children, and from my father [who was born six years after Ethel died and did not know of her existence till he was a teen] to his children. No one can exactly name “it” this silence, this secrecy, a quiet, a fear…. And no one (but me) knew much about Ethel or the circumstances and details of her death — “Right. Bubby lost one of her kids right”.
How could someone so important to us, who – all these years later – have so much to teach us, be so unknown, so invisible, so far away in a cemetery in Staten Island? How could we have been so hardened as to explain away my Grandmothers’ extreme grief-turned-depression with “meshuge”? Did that trauma really just stay deep within my Bubby or has it actually manifested in her children and their children… and ? I want to highlight the personal – finally honoring my Bubby and her daughter my aunt Ethel – and marry it with the universal – by investigating the Covid-19 bereaved who never got to mourn in community? There has to be a way to find peace and chart a way forward – for ALL OF US. Because it’s never too late to start a good mourning.