Love and Loss in the Time of COVID

Caregiver hands with patient

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Axe discussed her experience as caregiver for her late husband Harold in detail on the Seekers of Meaning TV Show and Podcast December 11, 2020. Watch the episode here.

The second week in March 2021 marked one year since COVID lockdown began. Everyone has stories to tell about how this devastating disease affected their lives during this upside down year. For me, March 10 marked the last time I saw my beloved Harold in person before his nursing home went into lockdown, the last time I held him and stroked him, the last time I was with Harold alive before his death April 19, 2020.

Harold died just short of his 78th birthday. For 10 years he suffered from Frontotemperal Degeneration (FTD) with Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA) and Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP). His speech began to regress in his 60s and he couldn’t speak at all for the last three years of his life. The PSP caused increasing stiffness and weakness until he lost mobility altogether.

I stepped down from my rabbinic responsibilities at Congregation Shir Ami after High Holy Days 2018 to become his full-time caregiver. He had always been “the wind beneath my wings” as I forged my sacred career and raised our four precious sons and I knew it was my turn to hold him up.

With the need for round-the-clock supervision, I was sadly compelled to place Harold in a nursing home in January 2020. Tuesday night, March 10 I got the dreaded call that they were going into coronavirus lockdown. My daily visits to feed him lunch and sit with him for a few hours, which had become the rhythm of my life, came to a sudden halt.

I was able to FaceTime with him every day to share stories of our children and grandchildren, and sing to him from our playlist of favorite family, theater and synagogue songs – not the same as being with him, but it was the best I had while watching his steady decline.

In his final week his breathing became more and more labored and our sons and their families “embraced” him in a FaceTime call from Boston, Ridgefield, Connecticut, San Francisco and NYC. Without coronavirus, we would have all been together stroking him, holding him, singing to him. In our absence, the dedicated nurses and staff were our surrogates, using their downtime to sit with him and stroke him. (singing – not so much!)

On Harold’s last afternoon, we had a group FaceTime with our four sons. They each shared memories and I sang Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach. Rather than praying for healing, I changed the words, “Bless those in need of healing with refuah sh’leimah, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit” to “May the final journey be peaceful, without pain, the transition of body, the transition of spirit.” I chanted Sh’ma and an hour later he took his last breath.

Love and loss is a solitary journey; love and loss during COVID – all the more so.

Because of COVID, we couldn’t draw strength and comfort from friends and family in person with a traditional funeral and shiva. Instead, we had a ZOOM Memorial Service with over three hundred people from all over the world – Israel, England, France and Australia – and throughout the U.S. I invited colleagues from all over the country to recite the memorial prayers so I could be a mourner. Shiva was also on zoom with friends and family sharing “Harold stories.”

During COVID, modern technology has been a savior in my time of loss and grief. The virtual attendance at the memorial service was astonishing and shiva was in some ways more comforting than a traditional gathering. Each speaker held everyone’s full attention and we could all see each other up close on the screen. Since Harold’s death, I have joined three closed Facebook groups for widows who are an invaluable source of mutual wisdom and understanding. While I miss physical human contact, I feel spiritually and emotionally connected. Nothing can ease the pain of grief, but, even virtually, I feel surrounded by caring and love!

With so many who have lost loved ones this past year, I will facilitate a bereavement group, “LOVE AND LOSS IN THE TIME OF COVID” on zoom, of course!

For more information call JFS Greenwich at (203) 622-1881.

About Rabbi Vicki Axe 2 Articles
Rabbi Axe received a Bachelor of Music Education from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, MA in Music Education from the Ohio State University in Columbus, OH, and her Degree in Sacred Music and ordination as Cantor from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. In 2008 Rabbi Axe was awarded a Doctor of Music, honorous causa from HUC-JIR, and Rabbinic Ordination from the Rabbinical Academy of America and received her Doctor of Ministry in Pastoral Care and Counseling from HUC-JIR in 2016. A master teacher, Rabbi Axe has prepared hundreds of children for their B’nai Mitzvah, taught cantorial and rabbinic students at the Academy of Jewish Religion and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, presented workshops on Jewish music and Jewish life for public schools, civic groups, and the Union for Reform Judaism, and visited many congregations as Scholar-in-Residence. Known for her talent and passion in the areas of Jewish education, conducting, and creative programming, as well as liturgical art, Rabbi Axe has served on the conducting faculty of the North American Jewish Choral Festival since 1997, directed URJ regional and national choirs, both adults and children, and was featured in programs of Jewish interest with Dave Brubeck and Marvin Hamlisch, for whom she also prepared a choir. Blessed with the gift of voice, Rabbi Axe feels as comfortable on the concert stage with a symphony orchestra as she does in the classroom with an audience of preschoolers or seniors. Her greatest joy is teaching and pastoral care which she offers from the bima, in the classroom, at a hospital bed, or on a stage. A national leader in the Reform Movement, Rabbi Axe is a past president of both the American Conference of Cantors, and the HUC-JIR Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music Cantorial Alumni Association, served on the Board of the Union for Reform Judaism, and currently serves on the School of Sacred Music Advisory Board. Rabbi Axe also serves her local community as a member of the Jewish Educators and Teen Professional Councils of Greenwich and Stamford, the Greenwich JNF Health and Healing Center Advisory Council, the Greenwich Hospital Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) Professional Consultation Committee, and is a past officer of the Greenwich Fellowship of Clergy. Her greatest role is as wife to Dr. Harold Axe, and mother to their four sons, Judah and his wife Ellie, Noah and his wife Amira, Gabriel, and Daniel, all twenty and thirty-something, and most recently grandmother to Maren and Jillian.

1 Comment

  1. A beautiful, sensitive and loving discussion on an incredibly difficult subject.
    A most impressive resume.

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