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Talking to Grief: Naming, Grieving, and Mourning our Pandemic Losses – Kol Nidre 2020/5781

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

Kol Nidre 2020

I begin with a poem that I have found myself going back to again and again these past seven months:

“Talking to Grief” by Denise Levertov
Ah, grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.
I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.
You think I don’t know you’ve been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.

On this Kol Nidre, I want, as Levertov so beautifully describes, to make space for our grief: to trust it, to welcome it — to welcome it as a companion. I want to create a sacred container for the loss and grief we have endured and are experiencing as a result of the Pandemic.

And while this conversation can be difficult and perhaps elicit feelings we might prefer to keep at the back door, I think it is especially important on Yom Kippur. As I said at the start of the service, on Kol Nidre, and it is true for all of Yom Kippur, we come before God and ourselves, “naked and without embellishment.” For a precious twenty-five hours, we do not have to put on a happy face or slog away at our day to day lives. We pause for a Shabbat Shabbaton– a total cessation. We reflect, we repent, we tell the truth of our experience. Through prayer and silence and yes, also even perhaps tears, we share with God and ourselves what is in our heart and soul.

Loss and grief have touched all our lives in some ways in this past year. Even for those of us lucky enough not to have lost someone we know to COVID, we are constantly aware of the senseless loss of life around us. It permeates our city and our country. And our memories. I know I can still hear the echo of the sirens on the street though it has abated. And there are so many personal losses and disappointments as well. And, though not my focus this evening, there is no shortage of things for us to grieve beyond the Pandemic — the impacts of climate change, the erosion of democracy to name a fewAnd if all of this were not enough, we lost Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Erev Rosh HaShanah. Many of us are still feeling the palpable grief of losing a superhero and a member of our extended Jewish family.

Yom Kippur is a sacred space we create with intention and time and prayer and love. And tonight, I want us to imagine Yom Kippur as a container in which we can name our losses, make room for grief, and begin to find our way toward healing.

To do so, I draw wisdom from Jewish rituals of grief and mourning and adapt them for our situation today. To be clear: this is an act of conscious reconstruction. I am taking the core ideas from these rituals and applying them not only to the losses of human life but to all the losses, including and perhaps especially those things taken away from us as a result of the pandemic. The three rituals to help us name and move through grief tonight are:

  • Keriyah: Tearing, which I understand as “Naming the Losses”
  • Bechi: Crying Out, or “Grieving the Losses”
  • Avelut: The Timeframe for Mourning; or “Mourning and Letting Go”

Keriah: Tearing; Naming the Losses

The act of keriah, or tearing, is rooted in the torah. When Jacob believed that his son Joseph was dead, he tore his garments (Genesis 37:34). The same is said of King David and his entourage when they heard of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.

The rabbis took what was a spontaneous expression of grief and ritualized it for future generations. But the ikar (essential message) of keriah is the same: acknowledge the loss, recognize that something profound has shifted in our lives as a result. Those who have participated in keriah for a loved one likely have felt the power of that naming — and the physical manifestation of our inward feelings. As is often the case, Jewish wisdom here aligns with the psychology of grief. David Kessler, co-author of the theory of the stages of grief, says: “There is something powerful about naming [our] grief… It helps us feel what’s inside of us.*”

In that spirit, let’s take some time to name losses that have resulted from the pandemic (so far):

Some of us lost dear friends, family, colleagues to COVID-19. Even those who did not experience direct losses are living with a backdrop of grief, as we watch the astounding numbers of deaths reported each day.

Many of us have lost loved ones who died from other causes, but because of COVID, we lost the opportunity for a final goodbye, a final hug, or a final touch.

Many of us have lost jobs or incomes. Many of us are mourning entire industries that sustain us that are on hold or are no more.

Some of us in families in small spaces miss alone time or our autonomy or our sense of selves outside our family.

Some of us living alone are grieving the isolation this pandemic engenders.

Some of us missed celebrations for ourselves or our loved ones: postponed b*mitzvahs, no in person proms, graduations, reunions, weddings, baby namings.

Some of us are grieving what we hoped would be the best years of our life, having just retired or near retirement, finally ready to enjoy this next stage of life.

Some of us are feeling the loss of vacations and travel. While it may not seem the highest priority, those trips may be what keep us balanced, healthy, and happy — and how we create meaningful memories with the ones we love.

As New Yorkers, we mourn for what we love about the city that has been or is still on pause: museums, orchestra, Broadway, to name a few. For some of us, these are not mere flights of fancy, they are the core of our life; our heartbeat.

I want to add in the losses from my own personal experience:

I feel the loss that comes from no physical contact outside my family. It has been especially painful to walk with SAJ members through grief without holding their hand or offering a hug.

I feel the loss of seeing our extended families only one time in seven months.

Mostly, I am grieving for the innocence of my nine year old son. For the fact that his irrepressible love of life has been diminished and in its place, there is a fear and sadness he does not have the words to articulate. And what should be great years for my thirteen year old, years of exploration and increased independence, are a time instead of isolation. And I am so sad that as a mom, I cannot make it better, even with love and hugs and assurance.

At this point, I am going to pause and give space for you to name something I may have missed that is true for you or to simply sit with some spaciousness around all that has been said…

Naming our Losses helps us feel them; which helps us in turn move through our grief, on a journey towards healing.

Bechi: Crying Out; Grieving our Losses

In the torah, when Abraham learns of his wife Sarah’s death, he comes to Kiryat-arba, where she lay לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ׃ (Gensis 23:2): to eulogize for Sarah and to wail for her. It is intriguing that the torah does not include crying as part of the formal mourning ritual, rather as its own act.

In so many places in Jewish sources, we see that crying out, bemoaning and bewailing, is not something to be afraid of — rather it is to be emulated. According to the medieval commentator Rabbeinu Bahya, the Israelites were only redeemed because they cried out in unison, which “is to teach you that a person’s prayer is only complete when one cries out from the pain and stress that are contained within one’s heart.**”

Once we name the losses, we need to make space to grieve them. To cry out from the pain and stress of it all! Yet, while this is a powerful invitation, so often we find it really hard to do. Especially when we are talking about non-traditional losses, or “ambiguous losses” — a term coined by Dr. Pauline Boss for those losses which do not have closure or clear understanding; those losses that are complicated or unresolved — exactly the kind of losses we feel as a result of the pandemic.

We often diminish our losses and dismiss our pain because we know that so many people have it worse than us. We might think :“I still have my job so I should not complain about how hard things are.” “I am healthy so there is no reason to cry about something as silly as not traveling to see my family” and so on. In our very optimistic American culture, it is hard enough to be seen in our overt losses, let alone the ones that might be hidden from others.

Yet the idea of “crying out” in Judaism is not contingent on the exact details of our personal situations or the sizing up of our pain to see if it measures up to the pain of others.

What if instead of denying our pain in favor of lifting up our blessings, we did both? We can be both profoundly grateful for being alive, knowing more than ever that it could have been otherwise and we can be sad that our life is so different than we had expected or hoped right now. We can feel close to the loved ones in our lives right now and we can still bemoan our lack of freedom to see friends or travel. We can be appreciative of the gifts in our life and still lament for our kids and grandchildren whose lives are forever impacted by this difficult time.

We do not cry out for its own sake. We do so because being seen as our whole selves, both the positive and the negative; the joy and the pain; light and the dark is profoundly healing.

I invite you, during this sacred container of time we share together, to find some time to hold both and especially, to (as R. Bayha instructed) allow for some crying out from the pain and stress that are contained in your heart.

Avelut: The Time Frame; Mourning and Letting Go

As has been widely observed, Judaism’s rituals of mourning demonstrate an intuitive understanding of the human psyche and the emotional needs of a mourner. Our ancestors designed a seven day, thirty day and twelve month cycle of grief and mourning that allows the person the physical and spiritual space to feel and act as a mourner.

Reconstructing this idea for the grief we experience in the pandemic, we can understand how central it is to give ourselves the time and space we need to process what we are moving through. This is especially difficult to do during a Pandemic, when our new-normal lives do not pause out of the stress we are experiencing. Taking time and space for walks, for silence, for simply feeling is critical to moving through this period.

And I think this ritual of Avelut offers another vital lesson for us: There are beginnings and there are endings to the process. Jewish rituals of mourning are transformative because they give us the space to change our status — to truly “be” a mourner. But they also have limits. We are not a mourner forever. In fact, Judaism shuns excessive mourning, both those who go too far in their stringency of practice during the year and those who extend mourning beyond that period. And in this time, when our losses and grief feel like they have no end, this is comforting.

A personal story:

The year after my father died, I allowed myself to become a “mourner,” to embody that space. I changed certain behaviors; I cried nearly every day. I made sure others knew I was in a “different” space.

I only recited Kaddish about four days a week. I wished it had been more but I just felt that I could not do more given that I was commuting over two hours a day to and from my childhood home to rabbinical school. I knew that the end of the 11 month period of kaddish was near, so I checked a calendar to see the date. Aghast, when I looked I saw that the last day of the daily Kaddish was the next day. I broke into tears. I went through all the stages:

Denial: This could not be. I was not ready to stop.

Anger: How could I have not realized this! How could I be so thoughtless!?! This is so cruel and unfair!

BargainingNo one would fault me if I just extended this deadline by a month, right? I mean it’s just another month. Depression: How could I go on? How could I say those words tomorrow?

I went through this, all in a 10 minute span!

Finally, after a conversation with one of my professors: Acceptance. I came to realize: Jewish tradition is wise and ancient. I need to lean into it and say my last daily Kaddish tomorrow. And something powerful shifted for me. I could feel the transition into a different space in a palpable way.

My grief did not end when I recited those words the next day. My grief over my father is always with me, even as it ebbs and flows from periphery to center. But the mourning rituals needed to come to an end. There had to be a time when it was perfectly ok for my primary identity to be as a mourner. And then a time when that was not the case. The finitude of the mourning contained me, held me. And also let me go.

Yom Kippur, as I have stated, is a sacred container we share and shape together. We come to God and to this day naked, unadorned, unembellished. I want to offer it as a day in which we can “talk to grief,” make space for it, as the poet Denise Levertov, as a companion, a friend; and a time in which we can allow ourselves to feel ALL of what is on our hearts and minds.

And to do so, knowing that this container ends with Havdalah tomorrow night. Grief does not end, but God willing, we can utilize this time to feel and move through, so that we are ready as we hear the shofar’s blast to greet the New Year with a renewed and open heart.

Gmar Hatima Tova.


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