When my father was finally admitted into hospice, I called my then Rabbi and stood outside my classroom, cord stretched through the almost but not quite closed door. I didn’t know what to do but I did know that this was a call that I was supposed to make. Hearing my stilted speech, she quickly figured out what was happening and said, “One thing we Jews do well is death.” I don’t remember much else from that conversation, but I remember that calm, measured sentence and I remember feeling that this was a safety net I could step into without question. While my reaction is definitely credited to the gentle, firm comfort from my Rabbi, I also know that she was right. Jews do know how to do death extremely well.
In Judaism, there is a lot of ritual surrounding the minutes, hours, days and weeks following a death. There are prayers to be said, acts to be carried out; the mechanics of mourning are firmly written in stone, allowing the bereaved to focus on their grief. When a parent dies, there is a daily prayer, the kaddish, that adult children recite, every day, surrounded by at least nine other adult Jews. In the days, weeks and months following my father’s death, I welcomed the sacred time every day when I could mourn, when I could gather with other mourners and say the kaddish. And then it stopped.
At exactly eleven months from his death (according to the Jewish, lunar, calendar), I stopped the daily ritual of kaddish. This, too, was part of the process. It was important to have one month in the year when the mourner reentered the “normal” world and stopped mourning. It was intended to be a clear demarcation and for me it was a stark moment. What should have felt like an arbitrary and manufactured cessation to grief, was perfectly timed; I was ready. I needed to be free of the daily obligation of kaddish to allow space for life to fill in, settling into the small spaces that I was holding from my father’s death.
Today is March 11th. It has been one year since the pandemic was officially declared. Every day after today will be an anniversary. The end of sports. The end of school. The end of (fill in the blank). For some of us, we will mark anniversaries of death, hospitalization, recovery and more. The personal moments will be reflected in the shared humanity that comes with a global pandemic. So much shared pain. So much shared grief. (Just like mourners gathering together to say kaddish, there is connection in shared grief.) I worry that the waves of reminders will begin and never stop. Wave after wave of sadness and loss revisiting us, knocking us down just when we thought we had found our footing. I wish that we could have found a way to stop, just stop, after eleven months.
I don’t know what the connection is to saying kaddish for my father and circling around the calendar back to this date, but I do know that there is one. As we inched closer and closer to today, I couldn’t shake the sense that this year didn’t get to have a month of normal, didn’t have a time without mourning. We’ve moved through so much loss, it is amazing we are not completely empty.