everything has changed
A return to what was implies that nothing has changed
In our Jewish calendar, Springtime, amid all its beauty and growth, is truly a season of memory. We move ever swiftly from the redemptive memory of Passover to the catastrophic memory of the Holocaust to the mournful memory of Yom Hazikaron. Within 50 days total, we find ourselves at the revelatory memory of Shavuot, with Yizkor – the intimate memories of our loved ones embedded within each pilgrimage festival combined with the daily recitation of mourners Kaddish in our liturgy.
Judaism’s capacity to hold collective memory is tremendous; of Judaism’s many strengths, the rites of mourning are our most brilliant container to hold grief. But how will Judaism and our Jewish communities hold us up amid the grief and trauma our world experiences in this pandemic? How can we ever recover? And what is the role Judaism will play to help us return back to a life we wish to live again?
While some of us are eager to “return” to our previous lives, many of us are frightened. As COVID vaccinations increase and the CDC issues new guidelines, we may be excited about social interactions or travel, but we are also afraid. Afraid of our diminished social skills, afraid of a world missing so many loved ones, afraid of strangers. COVID has changed other people from potential friends to potentially lethal, changed our pro-social behaviors of helping others and sharing to dangerous and deadly. We have changed, so much has changed. We grieve this change.
One of the important distinctions between individual and communal trauma is simply that communal trauma changes history. The expected trajectory of human events is permanently rewritten. Whether it is 9/11 or the assassination of Reverend King, nothing is ever again the same. COVID-19 is communal trauma. The pattern of our communal life has changed. Nothing will ever again be the same. We grieve this change.
We often minimize personal trauma in the face of collective trauma. What has happened for ME seems less important when I know what has happened for others. We shame ourselves when we hurt, rather than understanding that emotions are important signals. They don’t have to dictate our behavior, but they matter. My pain doesn’t have to be as bad as yours for my pain to matter. When I think my pain is unimportant, I am telling myself that I am unimportant.
We believe that re-emergence will be deeply challenging for many of us. We have gotten used to our isolation, with its quiet time and narrowed commitments. Our worlds have shrunk to a more manageable size. Our griefs have been private and profound. Experts suggest that every person who has died of COVID this year, leaves behind at least 9 newly bereaved loved ones. A grief pandemic is what comes next, they say. In a year that has been catastrophic, communal, profound, life changing and historic, grief abounds.
This is a time when our spiritual lives may support us. We know that many people turned to religious institutions early in the pandemic, when needs were great and attendance was high. As the year wore on and we were worn out, those early numbers shrank but have not disappeared. Religion or religious observance has become, for many of us, a sacred space in time, an opportunity to step away from the office in our kitchen, and the constant battle between personal, family and professional demands.
Which brings us back to the critical question: how can Judaism help us hold our grief in order to return back to life?
The first task facing us as reopening progresses is to find a place and space to mourn. How will your Jewish community acknowledge all the losses and gains of the past year? Will there be an annual commemoration? Will we acknowledge this loss at Yom Kippur Yizkor? How will people tell their stories of this change? Psychology teaches us that humans need to tell stories to digest our lives, and that these stories change over time. Telling my story changes me and it changes my story. If we don’t create space for story-telling, we are much more likely to see PTSD, rather than post-traumatic growth. And sometimes, we will need to tell the same story over and over again until we feel we have been heard.
President Biden’s “Build Back Better” slogan is both trite and profound. It acknowledges a deep truth: after deep and prolonged communal loss, a return to the status quo is insufficient. Trauma reveals truths about our institutions, relationships, and ourselves that we could not – or would not – see before. Our challenge is to learn from this year and find better ways going forward.
President Biden, himself tragically acquainted with loss, recalled the first thanksgiving after his son Beau died: “I remember… the empty chair, the silence, takes your breath away….” In this thanksgiving address he named what is true for so many of us. “It’s really hard to care,” he said, “it’s hard to give thanks, it’s hard to even think of looking forward, and it’s so hard to hope…” What will we do when we are encountered by so many empty chairs?
We will soon return to spaces that have been empty for over a year. We will be full ourselves – of grief, fear, and caution; of love, joy, and connection. We will still be hidden behind our masks. It is incumbent on all of us to recognize that the person behind the mask is changed, potentially unrecognizable. How will we make room for the losses, learnings, and COVID-keepers of the past year? A return to what was implies that nothing has changed. But everything has changed. Can we embrace this challenge and co-create the next normal? How will you create for yourself and your communities a space to cry, to share, and to remember?
Rabbi Jen Gubitz is a rabbi and writer in Boston. Her work focuses on supporting couples on the pathway to marriage and creating spaces for “good grief.” She is the co-host of the OMfG Podcast: Jewish Wisdom for Unprecedented Times.
Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist who currently teaches as an adjunct lecturer at HUC-JIR. Her classes include Human Development for Educators, The Spiritual Life-Cycle, Adolescent Development and Teens In and Out of Crisis. She is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.