Smile Politely

How we walk to the other side of grief

April is the first full month of spring. It’s a month of new life, of green shoots and soft colors and delicate blossoms that emerge from their winter’s sleep.

The pinks, purples, and yellows stand in contrast to the darkness of this past year. The warmth of the sunshine is paradoxical to the cold and emptiness that many of us are carrying now. We can have hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, but a year of fear and loss has trapped us in a distrust of what microbial evolution and public health and politics have in store for us mere humans: The death of our loved ones due to COVID, the unraveling of relationships over politics and pandemic stress, the loss of that naive belief that our individual actions have no impact on those around us, and vice versa. This past year has laid bare systemic inequities, often revealing our own complicity or vulnerability. The exhaustion of trying our very best, and repeatedly coming up short, has eroded the optimism many of us once took for granted.

It hurts.

A year of this inexorable, inescapable pain from a virus has left us beleaguered. The storm of racial injustice and the violence built into a system that upholds white supremacy is finally visible to many of us who have long had the privilege of looking away. The invisible yet palpable scourge of nature’s worst ills has left us depleted, standing in the wake of death and fear and disappointment and uncertainty.

And now it is spring once more. A season of new life, in the middle of a time of loss and grief. Grief can be so isolating, and in a time when we are already physically and emotionally isolated, I wanted to learn how some communities are grieving together while still largely separated. After a year in which many of us have been forced to cope with our grief in ways that are detached, in ways that are unproductive and unhealthy, or perhaps in ways that can only be described as denial, I wanted to learn how we can all relearn how to grieve the many people and things we have lost.

I had a conversation with Rabbi Alan Cook, spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Champaign since 2013, about grief. What does grief look and feel like to a rabbi, especially during a pandemic? “It is sadness, in recognition of what’s lost, of people we miss, of opportunities we miss. Grief … is all the things we know we can’t recapture in quite the same way. It’s a heaviness and a sadness.”

How is this spiritual leader shepherding his community through grief and death, in a time when this close-knit community can’t practice the rituals that have comforted millions of people for millennia? “[The lack of ritual and traditional grieving] left a space for reconsidering how we remember people.” Rabbi Cook explained how these memories, intermingled with sadness, fill up the days that separate a loved one’s departure from this life and the day their loved ones can safely gather to memorialize them. With limited opportunities for safe funerals and in-person memorials, mourners have the chance to cling to memories longer, and the delay of one’s in-person celebration of life means that we can actually unpack what the person meant to us. “Now it feels okay to remember some silliness or irreverence. We’ve reinvented the grieving process.”

After a year of reinventing everything — work, school, going to the grocery store, talking about racism, our collective values about how we look out for one another — it follows that we would also reinvent the grieving process. At the time of this article’s publication, over 561,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Countless people who are Black, Brown, Indigenous, or Asian have been unjustly hurt, imprisoned, or murdered because of pervasive white supremacy. People within the LGBTQ+ communities have been targeted by hate. Incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have challenged our belief that America is a place of freedom for all. And for those of us who can only witness, not experience, these heinous acts, the conversations we’ve initiated with family and friends have often led to distrust and hate of each other. Many of our relationships have imploded over these conversations. We have had to reinvent grief to accommodate the many layers of grief thrust upon us, to adapt to the people still in our lives today and to the absence of loved ones we’ve lost to death or discord. 

Rabbi Cook spoke to one grieving strategy that the pandemic has actually improved. “Online communities and social media; we can commiserate in these spaces while we’re separated. We are coming together on Zoom.” For people whose grief is outside the loss of a person, Rabbi Cook also recommends the books Necessary Losses and Imperfect Control, both by Judith Viorst (who also authored the classic Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day).

We can grieve people we’ve lost, either to death or to a split in our relationship. We can gather virtually. We can support each other through texts and sharing photos that remind us of what once was. But where are we going? Does grief lead us somewhere? Does it evolve? Does it ever end? Does this pain ever transcend to something easier to carry?

“It takes on different forms, but it’s never totally done,” explains Rabbi Cook. “I’ll replay scenarios in my mind that I wish I could forget. That happens also with people. Grief is such a fluid thing and it can come back.” A friend of Rabbi Cook’s explained the directionality of grief as being like cursive writing. In our grief, it is as though time folds back on itself. Grief folds back on itself.

Grief is non-linear because we grieve moments of time that we can never return to. Oh, but how we try. Grief is the soul trying, again and again, to touch that what’s gone. Sometimes grief is love that our heart must feel alone, with no way for that love to be received the way we wish it could be.

Rabbi Cook shared how, years ago, the young son of his close friends died from leukemia. “[At the funeral], we read Psalm 23. [The officiating rabbi] explained that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yes, but we’re reassured that it’s a path through a valley, not to a cave, not to a pit. There’s light. We can emerge on the other side of the valley and we don’t have to traverse it alone.”

Top photo by Kari Croop.

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