Coronavirus: How to be present for others when social distancing

There will be birthdays without parties, weddings without horas and funerals without mourners. Our family and friends will not be there.

SOCIAL DISTANCING, but what to do at home? (photo credit: REUTERS)
SOCIAL DISTANCING, but what to do at home?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Over the years I have sent (and received) numerous invitations that said, “In lieu of presents, your presence is your gift.” I really meant it. More than wanting to receive a candle, a bowl or a journal, I wanted my family and friends there in masse to support, celebrate and weep with me. And they have showed up, and I have countless memories.
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 my mother’s casket in the grave. On days that I miss her more than ever, I draw upon that memory and am comforted and at peace, for I remember most that I was not alone.
Now we are social distancing. There will be birthdays without parties, weddings without horas and funerals without mourners. Our family and friends will not be there. There will be no table photos, thus no photo albums to assemble. There will be no post-game gossip because there will be no drunk uncle.
For this moment in time, many of us will construct memories that will not be shared in the physical presence of others. Rather than bringing us comfort in days to come, these memories will remind us of an unprecedented time when we could not be together, not even for the most important moments of our lives.
As a rabbi, mother, daughter and wife, my heart breaks thinking about the son, graveside, burying his father this week, alone; the mother having just given birth, nursing her newborn in an isolated ward with no visitors; the 50th wedding anniversary celebration at which the grandparents will not be surrounded by their brood of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren because it is just too risky.
We tell ourselves we will reschedule, and we may, 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; there’s 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. (Breaks are still recommended, but don’t disappear in the bathroom.)
If you can’t participate digitally, write a heartfelt personal letter on beautiful stationary (remember those?) and put it in the mail. Make a care package and drop it at someone’s front door; nothing extravagant just a token of love. (If you have stockpiled hand sanitizers, wrap one in a bow. Then they will really know you love them!) Host a Zoom chat with dear 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 no global pandemic, staying in the moment is one of the hardest tasks of our lives, for it demands that we not lament yesterday or worry about tomorrow. With a pandemic, our anxieties and worries burst 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 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, because they will remember that you gave them what they really needed, and what they wanted most: the gift of your presence.
The writer is the chief innovation officer of American Jewish University.