Rivka Powers was unsure about starting a bereavement group on Zoom during the pandemic.
Powers, who is the director of bereavement services at Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks, didn’t think it would work as well as meeting in person. But with a group of six Jewish women who had lost their husbands between the end of 2019 and the spring of 2020, she decided to try the online experiment that society was attempting at the same time.
It could not have worked out better.
About seven months after meeting for the first time — and about three months after completing Powers’ 12-session bereavement class — the six Philadelphia-area women call each other sisters. They get together twice a month, once in person and once over Zoom.
On Aug. 2 and 3, they even had a group sleepover at a member’s shore house.
“Here’s what this group has helped us do: Make our lives something different,” Joyce Heisen said. “Because it could never be the same as when we were with our husbands.”
In their first Zoom meeting, the women just connected, according to Powers.
The director didn’t let any of them join a bereavement group right after their husbands died. She said it was too soon, that the women were still numb and that they needed more time to process.
But by the time they got together, the women were ready.
Heisen, Jackee Yerusalem-Swartz, Marcy Berlin-Burton, Eileen Whitman, Amy Berkowitz and another member realized that they were going through similar feelings and experiences: shock, sadness, guilt and the immense difficulty of building a new normal after decades of marriage.
Berkowitz, 68, is the youngest member of the group. She lost her husband of 45 years, David Berkowitz, in November 2019.
Berkowitz had been with her husband since she was 18. She was also the first widow in the couple’s friend group.
She knew no other adult life than the one with her husband; and no one from that life could understand what she was going through.
“It was a lifeline,” she said of the bereavement group.
Whitman lost her husband, Robert Whitman, in December 2019 after 65 years of marriage. She said the ensuing pandemic and lockdown only compounded her loneliness.
She was just stuck in her house, and suddenly responsible for chores that her husband used to handle, like fixing the circuit breaker.
But when she opened her computer for the first Zoom meeting, she wasn’t stuck anymore.
“Having the girls, it was just lucky,” Whitman said.
Yerusalem-Swartz and Berlin-Burton lost their husbands, Allen Swartz and Charlie Burton, in the final months of 2019 after 53 and 25 years of marriage, respectively.
In 2020, before she started the bereavement class, Yerusalem-Swartz was questioning herself for allowing her husband to take morphine while in hospice. Berlin-Burton was second-guessing her decision to not guide doctors to be more aggressive against her husband’s prostate cancer.
But after talking to Berkowitz, a hospice nurse, both women realized that such feelings are common among widows. They also grew to understand that, even though the feelings are common, they aren’t necessarily valid.
“We all seemed to feel, what if?” Berlin-Burton said.
“Amy was able to explain to me that I was being as kind as possible to my husband by allowing him to have the morphine,” Yerusalem-Swartz said.
Heisen’s husband, Peter Heisen, passed away in February 2020 after 56 years of marriage.
Heisen is 76, so like Berkowitz, she knew of no adult life without her partner.
The widow also described herself as “not a joiner.” But then she joined the bereavement group, made a new group of friends and recognized something important.
“I was doing things I may never have done with my husband,” Heisen said.
Later, she joined a community group that holds events in the park. Last week, she visited her sister down the shore and organized a mahjong party.
“If I want to do something, I do it,” she said.
Is this group still meeting? Do I have to be Jewish to join? I live in Center City at the Claridge.