My Family Gave Up Sitting Shiva to Fight Coronavirus | Opinion

On Sunday, my dad did one of the toughest things he'll ever have to do—he gave a eulogy for his mother. But he also did something equally tough, if not tougher. He told his closest friends and family members not to join him in person to sit shiva.

For those who don't know, "sitting shiva" refers to a Jewish tradition of joint mourning. We eat, we console, we remember—and it typically lasts up to a week. It's actually one of the Jewish traditions I respect most. Sharing grief with those who love you is cathartic. I know my dad agrees.

Yet my dad stood at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens, New York, and bravely said, "I will not be holding a customary shiva because of the health pandemic. I will always keep my doors open to friends and family, and those doors will be open when the crisis passes. I encourage calls and messages of remembrance. I encourage your thinking of my mother fondly during this week, separately."

He decided to make this statement after a thoughtful discussion with me and our immediate family.

"We must keep living our lives," someone said.

"People need to be able to pay their respects," another asserted.

In the end, my dad followed the recommendations of medical and scientific professionals who know more about the health risks than the rest of us. He also spoke to the rabbi performing the funeral ceremony, who assured him that his choice did not conflict with his faith nor Jewish law.

I understand why people say things like "We must keep living our lives" and "We can't let them win" after, let's say, a terrorist attack. Yet those sentiments don't apply to a pandemic. Staying home isn't a sign of concession or weakness. It's a sign of strength and smarts. It's how we ultimately will win.

Not coming over to sit shiva meshes with basic religious principles as well (for Jews and gentiles alike). Honor thy neighbor—by staying home and staying healthy.

Ally Kehoe family
Ally Kehoe, with her late grandmother and father, on her wedding day in 2014. Courtesy of Ally Kehoe

One story that led to our family's decision came a week before my grandma's funeral. A person tested positive for COVID-19 after sitting shiva at a retirement community in Rockville, Maryland, potentially exposing the 70 to 100 people in attendance to the virus, The Washington Post reported. Governor Larry Hogan called the situation "concerning." We didn't want our family to be the next alarming headline, and we certainly didn't want to put others at risk.

I write this not to pat my dad on the back, but to encourage others to follow his lead. Put common sense and our public health above strict traditions. Our traditions can be malleable in serious situations, such as the one we face today.

When my grandma used to ask how things were going, if we answered first by talking of our work or relationships, she'd always follow up, "And your health?"

She knew health comes first. Please follow her lead, in her memory. If you find yourself having to decide on a shiva, or something similar, think about your health and the health of those around you first.

Ally Kehoe is a communications professional and former reporter living in the Washington, D.C., metro area.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.