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Thursday, June 4, 2020

How to Be Present for Others when Social Distancing

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Over the years I have sent (and received) numerous invitations that said, “In lieu of presents, your presence is your gift.” And I meant it. I wanted my family and friends there en masse to support, celebrate and weep with me.

It is almost 10 years since my mother died, but I can still recall the sound of the footsteps of our friends walking beside me to place her casket in the grave. On days that I miss her more than ever, I draw upon that memory and I am comforted because I remember that I was not alone.

Now we are social distancing. There will be birthdays without parties. Weddings without horahs. Funerals without mourners. There will be no photo albums to assemble. There will be no postgame gossip because there will be no drunk uncle.

As a rabbi, mother, daughter and wife, my heart breaks for the son at the graveside burying his father alone. For the mother who just gave birth and nursing her newborn in an isolated ward. For the 50th wedding anniversary where the grandparents won’t be surrounded by their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

We tell ourselves we will reschedule, and we might, but time is sacred and not sanctifying the moment in the right time will forever mar the memory. Here is my suggestion: Seize this moment to practice being entirely present for others emotionally and spiritually. If you can’t be there physically, be there in heart and in soul.

If you are participating digitally, turn off all other distractions. Take off your watch. No need to check the time. Don’t take another call or make a to-do list while you are waiting for the event to begin or end. Listen intensely. Meditate on the message. Offer a note of encouragement in the chat. Don’t leave to get a snack in the kitchen.

“Give the gift of your soulful presence to all those who are in the process of making memories. There will come a time when all of this is behind us and our friends will look back and not feel so alone.”

If you can’t participate digitally, write a heartfelt personal letter on beautiful stationary and put it in the mail. Make a care package and drop it at their front door. Nothing extravagant. Just a token of love. If you have stockpiled hand sanitizer, wrap one in a bow. Then they really will know you love them. Host a Zoom chat with friends with a prompt in which everyone shares a meaningful quote or message.

Create a piece of art with a word of wisdom or a thought that keeps you going. Take a picture and air drop it. Send a song or a movie over iTunes. Most importantly, sit on the phone and just listen to your loved one. Don’t give advice. Don’t try to fix the situation. Just sit quietly and laugh or cry as needed.

When there is not a national pandemic, staying in the moment is one of the hardest tasks, because it demands that we not lament yesterday or worry about tomorrow. With a pandemic, our anxieties are through the roof. We have no idea what tomorrow will bring and without certainty or control, being present feels almost impossible.

But our loved ones still need us. Give the gift of your soulful presence to all those in the process of making memories. There will come a time when all of this is behind us and our friends will look back and not feel so alone because they will remember that you gave them what they really needed and what they wanted most — the gift of your presence.


Rabbi Sherre Hirsch is the Chief Innovation Officer of American Jewish University.

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