In a matter of weeks, the world has changed. Routines, jobs, financial security, gatherings with colleagues, friends and family, along with assumptions about our health and the vitality of those we love have dissipated. For some, there is the matter of death: dying alone and in pain; bearing witness to mortal suffering only through a screen unable to hold a hand; trying everything possible to facilitate recovery and yet failing to do so. All of these are devastating losses.
And we wonder, why? When will our old way of life return? Will it return?
As we are going through these sudden and fundamental changes in our lives, it is important to remember that we are grieving. It is also important to be aware that it isn’t just individuals who grieve. So do families, communities, nations and today, the world.
The grieving process is unavoidable and anything but pretty. It changes the way we look at life, the way we see each other, the way we perceive ourselves. It is a messy, dark and painful course; lonely too. Even when all of us are on that pilgrim-age, each one is lamenting their own loss, not others’. Unfortunately, grieving is in-escapable when there is a loss. The first challenge is to accept that we are wound-ed in our souls. Then there is the matter of safely navigating the course ahead with-out falling into the many traps and pitfalls that pepper our path on this pilgrimage we have been compelled to take.
There are five to seven components of grief. According to On Grief and Grieving by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, they are denial, anger, bar-gaining, depression and acceptance. Some add two other components, shock and testing.
Regardless of the number of components, there is a prevailing misconception that they are progressive way stations on the way to acceptance. They are not.
In the experience of all on their unique pilgrimages of sorrow, the components of grief are not sequential. Instead they are like posts in a pinball machine on which the psyche bounces almost randomly, and certainly in different ways for each individual, until at last the steel ball sinks in exhaustion, only to be shot into the posts again and again and again.
After many years, if acceptance is accepted, it does not forget the loss or deny its horror. Instead, hopefully, acceptance is an adaptation to the horror that, without denial, is able once again to live.
The danger is getting stuck to one or two of the components. Some find themselves ensnared by depression’s seductive song of dark self-centered futility. Others cannot escape bargaining, making deals with God or fate or the universe, as if to avoid the reality of loss. Perhaps the most common and dangerous traps are addictions to denial and anger. Examples of grieving parents who maintain a child’s bedroom and others who become saturated with bitterness are common.
When all of us are grieving, it is especially easy to become angry with each other.
A PSYCHOLOGY PROFESSOR once told his class, “If you hit your thumb with a hammer, someone nearby who is not in pain can comfort, console and help your thumb to heal. But if two people hit their thumbs at the same time, they are in-capable of helping each other. One might jump, yell and curse while the other bends over in silent anguish. Not only can neither help the other, they are likely to become angry. ‘Why has she gone silent? Why is he cursing?’
“Pain,” he concluded, “is self-centered. When you hit your thumb with a hammer, you are not going to think about loving your neighbor as yourself.”
The point is that grief is painful, and when grieving people are together, their common pain is not a thing that helps them heal. Instead, because of different ways pain is expressed, it tends to drive them apart.
The pilgrimage of sorrow is not exclusive to individuals. When a child riding a bus is blown up by a terrorist, the sorrow extends to families. When worshipers are cut down while praying in their synagogues, it ensnares the religious community. When a country losses citizens in war, it becomes a national dynamic. When the Black Plague invaded Europe, a continent grieved.
Today’s global pandemic, especially to the degree it takes lives and destroys economies, will bring the whole world into a grieving mode.
The problem is that if individuals have difficulty navigating the dizzying, numbing path of a steel ball striking posts in a pinball machine, it is all but impossible for communities to do so. Of particular concern is Europe during the Black Plague and Germany in the aftermath of the first World War. As the Black Death approached France, anger erupted into an antisemitic slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Jews.
A case can also be made that Germany’s embrace of Nazism was a manifestation of angry grief in the aftermath of the punishing Armistice of November 11, 1918.
Even at this early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic there are signs of rising global antisemitism. Some of them are no surprise. Antisemitic canards about Jews are expected from places like Tehran and in Palestinian textbooks.
Of greater concern is the re-appearance of comparable canards in Europe-an countries and various expressions of Christianity - including Catholicism, main-line Protestantism and Evangelicalism. For the most part, these infections are like microscopic viruses, appearing in these larger bodies while the bodies themselves do not display symptoms - not yet.
All of us, as individuals, communities and nations, have a Herculean task ahead. We must, at once, navigate our unique pilgrimages of sorrow and prepare for dysfunctional, even deadly, expressions of grief from other individuals, other communities, nations and the world.
Judaism is uniquely prepared for the task. When its founding father, Jacob, anticipated likely death, he chose to wrestle with an angel sent by God. Pleased by his determination to live, God changed his name to Israel.
It is a name that means “to wrestle with God.” In our grief and in a grieving world, all of us would do well to follow Jacob’s example, wrestling with integrity, determined to live.
The writer is a journalist living in Israel. He is also the author of two books, Walking Taylor Home (2001), and The Meadow: A Pilgrimage of Sorrow, un-published.