Esther Roman wasn’t even in the room when she witnessed what she describes as “probably the holiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
A doctor whose patient was suffering from COVID-19 had used an iPad to connect with Roman, a 38-year-old staff chaplain at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Morningside hospital, and members of the patient’s family. As the patient’s family told him that if they could, they would be in the room to comfort him, Roman saw – in the digital frame – the doctor reach out and stroke his hair.
“I don’t think that image will ever leave me,” Roman said. During the pandemic, she added, “the sense of purpose and the solidarity, and bearing witness to each other, are things that help us to fill our tank.”
As the coronavirus claims tens of thousands of American lives, spiritual counselors like Roman are facing an already daunting job, rendered life-altering by the pandemic: bringing faith and connection to the sick and bereaved and honoring the dead. Younger religious leaders have stepped into bigger leadership roles, assuming more risk or wielding more technological know-how, but the virus has taken a toll on the pastoral care of clergy, rabbis and imams of all ages.
Depending on the area, religious leaders are limited in or restricted from giving any in-person care to those battling COVID-19. Father Matthew O’Donnell, a pastor at Chicago’s St. Columbanus Church, is one of 24 younger Catholic priests who have volunteered to safely administer sacraments and provide other care to those in the region suffering from the virus.
O’Donnell, 33, said he feels “completely fine” taking on a higher degree of risk. He described following safety precautions beyond donning the N95 mask, gloves, and other personal protective equipment he was given as part of his participation.
The oil he uses to anoint the sick is sterilized after each individual use, for instance and he cleans himself and his clothes after every hospital visit.
Another New York hospital chaplain who helps families cope with the pandemic, Mount Sinai's Silvia Mejia, is largely barred from entering patients’ rooms while she watches some of her own loved ones battle the virus.
“This crisis affects us all so personally,” she said. “It feels like you just need to take care of yourself a lot better, otherwise the risk of burning out and risk of overextending yourself is a lot greater.”
The struggle to bring spiritual comfort is especially acute in the hotspot that is New York City, where 14,427 people have died from probable or confirmed cases as of Tuesday, and it extends far beyond the hospital. Amid the suffering and loss, social distancing has made communal prayers complicated at a time when many are craving connection and community warmth.
Even so, dozens joined a recent virtual dua, or supplication, session led by Imam Khalid Latif, chaplain for the Islamic Center at New York University.
Latif, his eyes closed and his hands raised, prayed for those battling the virus — one person was on a ventilator, he said; another is suffering from both coronavirus and cancer. He then somberly read the names of some of those who have died.
“We ask, ya Allah, that you grant them all peace and entrance into your Jannah (paradise) without any judgment,” he said. Held over Zoom, the prayer was also streamed on Facebook and Instagram.
“We’re all praying together in a way that still works functionally within the religious parameters and offers people an opportunity to find healing and solace,” the 37-year-old imam said by phone. “There is kind of that sense of physical separation not necessitating spiritual disconnectedness.”
Still, laying the dead to rest offers its own challenges, as inundated funeral homes restrict in-person spiritual presences. Clerics of all faiths grapple with doing right by the dead while protecting the living.
Rev. Roger Jackson, senior pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Brooklyn, said he would only be permitted to spend 15 minutes at the graveside service for one of his church’s two members who recently died.
“There’s really very little answers we have as pastors on how to help (family members) through that process, because it’s so unusual and so different than what we’re used to,” Jackson said.
Rabbi Joshua Stanton of Manhattan’s East End Temple, steered his congregation through the difficult choice to suspend all in-person care, including funerals, to help protect collective health during the peak of the pandemic.
Even so, Stanton recalled, he prayed digitally with a dying worshipper “and it was not the same as holding their hand … but at the same time profoundly meaningful.” And a recent funeral conducted on Zoom left him “absolutely emotionally drained,” its impact as deep as in person.
In Georgia, Imam Bilal Ali, of the Gainesville Islamic Cultural Center, recently slipped into a protective suit and wore gloves and a mask as he headed to a hospital to perform janazah, or funeral, prayers. It was his first for someone who had died after contracting the virus.
The body was already bagged. Ali, who has been volunteering at a funeral home, helped put it into a second bag and a wooden box.
Ordinarily, Ali would have washed the body three times with water and soap before dabbing a fragrance on the skin and wrapping it with a shroud. Instead, he wiped soil over areas of the bag. Known as “tayammum,” the ritual may replace the washing in dire circumstances.
“You have to be spiritually, mentally prepared,” Ali said. “When I leave my home ... I never know if I’m going to return home in the same condition.”
The hardest part? Not seeing the face of the person he made prayers for, he said.
Grief-stricken families struggling with virus restrictions “are left almost in a daze or puzzled. It’s surreal,” he said. “You can’t kiss them and hug them anymore? There’s no closure.”