‘This is a time when people need connections’
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‘This is a time when people need connections’

JFCS offers online bereavement groups for the surreal reality of covid deaths

Jewish Family and Children’s Services offers online bereavement groups.
Jewish Family and Children’s Services offers online bereavement groups.

A 60-something Bergen County woman — we’ll call her Diane to protect her privacy — found herself widowed quite suddenly, when her seemingly healthy husband died to covid-19. It was only 10 days from the time he first felt symptoms until he was put on a ventilator.

“How did this disease take his life when he was so healthy?” Diane said. “Why didn’t he survive it? I have no answers. I never thought I’d be in this situation at this time in my life.”

Her rabbi and a few friends encouraged her to seek help at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey.

In response to community needs created by the crisis, JFCS has started several free covid-related support groups on Zoom, facilitated by licensed clinicians. There are groups for healthcare workers and first responders; for rabbis; for adults who lost a parent; for young adults who lost a parent; and for people who lost a spouse or partner.

Diane joined the latter group, led by senior clinician Debbie Fox, for its first six-week session; she has continued into the second session because she has found it so helpful.

“For an hour and a half once a week, I talk to people who are also grieving and going through the same thing I went through,” she said. “They give us coping mechanisms and take us through the process of grieving and how to manage our feelings. When I get a wave of pain, I now know what activities can help me to work through it, like walking, biking, or exercising. The pain comes and goes all day long, so that has helped.”

Diane has learned not to push the pain away, not to make any plans or major decisions, and just to take things minute by minute. “The bereavement group has given me comfort,” she said. “And now the next thing I’m hoping to get from it is how to move on with my life. Because I can’t bring my husband back.”

Allison Limmer, the director of clinical services at JFCS, says the agency’s covid-19 groups “have reduced isolation by instilling a sense of not being alone while connecting and processing unique experiences during this most unusual time in our lives.”

The pandemic has increased demand for all of JFCS’s services — it’s experienced a 20 percent increase in therapy calls, a 30 percent increase in requests to visit JFCS food pantries,; a 52 percent increase in kosher Meals on Wheels deliveries, and a 33 percent increase in career services.

“As a community mental-health agency, it is our job and our mission to be responsive to the needs of the community,” the agency’s chief operations officer, Jessica Fleischer, said.

“Right now, we have heard that those needs include a lot of support for people who have been touched by covid-19, either as someone who is recovering, who has lost someone, or who has cared for people who are sick and their families. This includes bereaved spouses and children, first responders and healthcare workers, and even the clergy in our community, who have faced the front line in different ways.

“They are all the foundation, and it is our job to fortify that foundation, hold it up, and help keep it strong. This is a time where people need connection, and they find strength and value in talking to people who understand their experiences firsthand.”

Another local woman, whom we will call Shirley, lost her mother to covid-19 in early April. She joined a JFCS support group to help her deal with her grief as well as anger and bitterness about her mother’s experience in the hospital.

“She was basically in good physical health, but she went into the hospital on Monday and on Friday morning she was dead, and she died alone,” Shirley said.

Shirley learned about the support group through her synagogue. “After the first session I felt I should drop out because the other participants had lost parents younger than my mother, and covid had robbed each of them of more years with their parent than I had lost. But the group treated me with respect, and we formed a bond. Everybody grieves, no matter what age his or her parent was.”

Her group, led by social worker Paula Rozner, had participants from as far afield as Texas, Illinois, and Florida. “Having it on Zoom didn’t restrict it to Bergen County whatsoever, and there was no threshold to entry other than having lost a parent to covid,” she said.

Another point they had in common was “the fact that none of us had any of the rituals of mourning because of this situation,” Shirley continued. “We didn’t have the closure that a proper funeral or shiva would give, and it was difficult to move ahead. Paula gave us the opportunity to share pictures and eulogies on the Zoom meetings, to help us move from grief to legacy.”

Like Diane, Shirley has decided to join the second six-week session of the group. “I feel very thankful to JFCS for its generosity in making this program free,” she said. “Over the six weeks, my emotions changed quite radically.”

Individual counseling also is available; fees are determined on a sliding scale based on income. All forms of insurance are accepted, including Medicare and Medicaid, but nobody is turned away if they don’t have insurance.

For more information or to register for a free online support group, call (201) 837-9090 or email groups@jfcsnnj.org.

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