Yom Kippur/Yizkor 5780: Good Grief
Megan Devine is a psychotherapist in private practice. She had worked with hundreds of people facing any number of problems that led them to her office: substance addiction, abuse, trauma, and grief. She devoted her career to building up people’s emotional literacy and resilience.
But then, on an ordinary summer day in 2009, she watched her partner Matt drown in a freak accident, just a few months shy of his fortieth birthday. If anyone would be capable of absorbing such a devastating loss, it would be her. Yet none of the tools in her toolbox seemed to work. She wanted, she recalls, “to call every one of my clients and apologize for my ignorance.”
As the months and years passed, she discovered that it was not only her. Our entire culture has a problem coming to terms with devastating loss. Well-meaning people spout off the most unhelpful platitudes. People act surprised and judgmental when a person who has experienced devastating loss is not back to normal a few months, or even a few weeks, after. Devine recalls that about five weeks after her partner drowned, she told a friend that she was having a rough day. “Why? What’s going on?” the friend asked. “Uh, Matt died,” she replied. “Still? That’s still bothering you?” came the reply (29).
Even our mental health system, of which Devine was a part, treats grief like a head cold or fever: a temporary unpleasantness to be overcome as quickly as possible. Grief that last longer than six months gets labeled as a “disorder” requiring psychological intervention (29).
Devine experienced how these reactions a horrible situation and make it even worse. She realized that our culture will do almost anything to justify or minimize grief. Devine found that, “our popular psychology, self-help books, movie storylines, book plots, and spiritual texts all glorify grief and loss as a way to grow as a person…Your health and sanity depend on your ability to rise above your grief, to claim equanimity, to find your happiness within,” she writes (26). Furthermore, our culture demands a happy ending to every story. “Nobody,” Devine realized, “wants to read a book where the main character is still in pain at the end” (33).
On this basis, we wrongly expect grieving people to recover as quickly as possible. We even expect them to be better than they were before, having learned “important” lessons about what really matters in life.
This culture of grief denial is understandable. We do not like to hear that there are some things that cannot be fixed. We do not like to consider that there are some things that do not all work out for the best. We do not like to imagine that someone else’s terrible fate could just as easily befall us. And so we look for any way to rationalize what has happened. This can lead us, with the best of intentions, to blame grieving people for their own grief.
An especially objectionable form of this denial comes those spiritual teachers who suggest that “remaining calm and unaffected in any situation is a sign of our spiritual and emotional development” (50). But this kind of spiritual bypass misunderstands the purpose of spirituality. Religion and spirituality, in their many forms, are, as Devine puts it, “meant to help you live what is yours to live, not to make you rise above it…to help you feel companioned inside your grief…to give you a tiny bit of breathing room inside what is wholly unbearable” (50).
True spirituality is not about becoming so detached that we do not feel pain. That is impossible and, frankly, undesirable. True spirituality makes us more open to pain and suffering and hardship, understanding them all as part of what it means to love. Devine realized that, “grief is part of love. Love for life, love for self, love for others…And love is really hard. Excruciating at times” (5). Given this reality, diving in to our pain and suffering, rather than denying their existence, is real enlightenment.
So what can we do instead? Devine has dedicated her career to finding a middle way between denying our pain or letting it totally consume us. A middle way that honors the reality of grief, but does not doom us forever. A middle way that finds, in Devine’s words, “new and beautiful ways to inhabit what hurts…[finding] the depth of love necessary to witness each other’s pain, without rushing in to clean it up,…[and ways to stand] beside each other, offering companionship” (60-61).
Our Torah reading this morning offers a model for this kind of third way. It begins “The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD” (Leviticus 16:1). Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, you may recall, died in an enigmatic incident involving strange fire that they brought in the ancient Tabernacle. At the time, Aaron was famously silent, perhaps too stunned by this traumatic loss for words.
One Midrash (Tanchuma Yashan Aharei 1) imagines that when this happened, Aaron loudly exclaimed: “What possible sin could my sons have committed, such that they deserved this fate?” At that moment, the Holy Blessed One was revealed to Moses. But God did not reveal the rationale for the death of his two nephews. Instead, God gave Moses a simple command: Go comfort your brother! Indeed, in the next verse of today’s Torah reading, God commands Moses to speak to his brother. This midrash understands Moses’ speaking as words of comfort and consolation, just as God told the prophet Isaiah to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem” to comfort the people of that bereaved city with words.
So, we can imagine that Moses did his best to comfort his brother after this tragic loss. He did not try to explain away Aaron’s grief or answer the unanswerable question of why this happened. He comforted Aaron by acknowledging the depth of his loss. He comforted Aaron by running toward the unspeakable feelings, rather than away from them.
But I also think he comforted Aaron another way. The rest of this chapter contains the procedures for Yom Kippur in the ancient Tabernacle, which is why we read it on this day. In these laws, Aaron takes a central role as the officiant of the ceremonies that purify the sanctuary for the coming year. In introducing these laws now, perhaps Moses is trying to tell his brother: I understand that you have experienced terrible loss. I understand that things will never be the same. But that does not mean your life is over. You still have an important role in this community. You can still accomplish essential things. You can hold on to your loss, while not letting it define the rest of your life.
Like Aaron, we each experience Yom Kippur achrei mot, in the wake of death. On Yom Kippur, we confront our own mortality and call to mind those we have lost, either recently or many years ago. Yom Kippur can be one time, among many offered by Jewish tradition, to sit like Aaron did and simply feel our grief. Yizkor creates moments on the calendar to invite our grief to the front of our consciousness. This itself is an acknowledgement that grief never actually goes away. And then, like Aaron, we can figure out what else we might be able to accomplish, even alongside our grief.
But Yom Kippur, as we engage in the self-accounting of this time of year, can also be a time to commit to being like Moses, to comforting others through their grief. We can commit to changing the culture around grief. This means not expecting people to go back to normal as soon as possible. This means letting other people say they are sad and not trying to talk them out of it. This means crying at a funeral without being made to feel self-conscious, or that we have to be strong for someone else’s sake.
People who live with grief have told me that with time it gets better. But I am not sure that is right. The underlying situation itself does not get better. The loss does not go away. Instead, I think that we get better. We learn over time to live with our grief.
Yizkor offers a moment to check in with our grief, to see how it feels now. We cannot short-cut this process. The only way out is through. Yizkor helps us create a container for our grief, so that our grief neeed not define our entire lives. To this moment of remembrance we now turn.