Boca Raton, Fla. — When Ben Schwartz’s mother died at home in Australia, he flew to the funeral from his home in Israel but could not afford the airfare for his wife and five children. So while sitting shiva, Schwartz, not his real name, jotted down the names and comments of those who visited so he could share them each evening with his wife and children at home.
The story, contained in the book, “Oceans Apart: A Guide to Maintaining Family Ties at a Distance” by Rochel Berman, illustrates just one of the ways families cope with long-distance illness and death. At a recent seminar Berman organized at the Boca Raton Synagogue here, 70 participants discussed some of the mental health difficulties families face in bridging the distance between themselves and loved ones far away.
Among the different workshops were ways to keep in touch with parents, children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces and nephews through the Internet and dealing with conflict while visiting. Rabbi Efrem Goldberg pointed out in the synagogue’s weekly bulletin that support groups have recently formed here for parents whose children and grandchildren have made aliyah, “to help them reconcile the disparate feelings of joy and pride with sadness and anger.”
“Though we like to think of ourselves as a suburb of New York — a hop, skip and a jump from the tri-state area — the reality is [that] many of us are far from our parents, siblings and their families,” he wrote. “How do we maintain the close, cherished, affectionate connection a family needs to weather the challenging times and to mark celebrations and milestones fully?”
In the workshop dealing with illness and death at a distance, one could see the emotional toll health emergencies takes on the lives of those living far away. The workshop presenters — Hindy Rubin, a psychologist, and Anita Stern Heering, a non-practicing physician — discussed the trauma they experienced with death in their own families and answered questions from participants.
“You need to communicate with the rest of the family because it’s important for your children — from little children to those in college — to know what’s going on with their grandparents,” Heering said. “Don’t protect them. You don’t want them to hear it from someone else.”
She recalled that just hours before her mother died, she called her husband and put the phone next to the ear of her unconscious mother so that her husband and their children could talk to her one last time.
“I could see she was hearing them because of her eye movements,” Heering said.
Her uncles were “traumatized” by her mother’s death at the age of 69, because she was the first of four siblings to die — and she was not the oldest.
“It put their own mortality in the forefront, especially since she was young and [seemingly] the healthiest,” Heering said, noting that her mother died of cancer a year-and-a-half after it was diagnosed.
Rubin told participants that closure is very important before a person dies.
“If there are issues you want to clear up, you should because once the person is gone, he’s gone,” she said. “Calling or Skyping are ways to make a relationship close again. If you don’t do it, you will never know what it would have been like if you did.”
One participant, Jay, 79, told the group that he has two sisters – one in Buffalo who is 85 and the other in New York City who is 83. He said he finds it difficult to travel and has not seen them in about 10 years.
“There are things you can do,” Rubin told him. “You can have conversations on the phone as often as you feel you want. You don’t want them to pass away and then wish you had.”
Heering suggested that Jay set a date and time to talk to them each week so that there is a regular routine to it. And she said to get the name and phone number of a neighbor friend or the cleaning lady in case one of the sisters doesn’t answer the phone at the appointed time “or if you call one day and she does not sound right.”
Jay then confided that he was upset that both sisters have put in their wills their wish to be cremated, which is against Jewish law.
“But that is their wish,” Heering said. “They have done you and the entire family a favor because fights break out many times when a person has not left a will or any burial instructions. One family member will say he opposes the cremation and others might say they want cremation. So they are fighting instead of grieving for the one who died. I understand you are opposed to cremation, but these are their wishes and they need to be respected.”
Heering said it is not only important to make a will, but that one should make a living will and even funeral arrangements for one’s death.
“It’s doing your family a favor — preparing which cemetery and funeral home to use and even making the arrangements,” Heering said.
Such advance planning is particularly useful for children who live a distance from parents who want to be buried near their retirement home. The children are often unfamiliar with the location of the local funeral homes and cemeteries.
Because Jay will be physically unable to attend his sisters’ funerals, he will be sitting shiva for them in his own home, and Rubin says Jay must prepare to deal with the emotions involved in such a situation. She said that when people sit shiva by themselves, it is important that they have a support group to help them through it.
“The benefit of being a part of the Jewish community and a synagogue is that people go to make shiva calls,” Rubin said.
Berman said that parents living apart from their family often belong to a synagogue, social group and country club and that those members should be notified at the time of a parent’s death to give them a chance to pay a shiva call. And if a person is sitting shiva by himself, that is particularly important.
“I know that if I were told by my shul that someone was sitting shiva alone, I would make a shiva call,” she said. “The purpose of shiva is to share this as a community.”
Berman pointed out that in her research for the book she interviewed someone who sat shiva for his mother at his parents’ home in another country. It was too expensive to fly his wife and children to the funeral, so he held a memorial service in his synagogue on the shloshim (30th day) after the burial.
“It was a way for him to share her death,” he said. “His wife and all of his kids spoke. It was an opportunity for the community who couldn’t come to be part of the mourning for his mother.”
Some of the other tips offered at seminar were:
n If you live far away and suspect your parents have a problem, contact their friends to learn how they are doing emotionally and physically, because a parent may try to conceal problems. A bank teller with whom they regularly interact will often provide an objective assessment.
n Always ask someone to go with your parent when he or she visits the doctor because your parent may not remember everything that was said.