Yizkor: Accepting Covid-19
Last year, for the yizkor (memorial) service on Passover, I wrote a sermon entitled Covid Yizkor. I thought that saying yizkor at home, connected by Zoom, would be a one-time, unique experience. I spoke of the overwhelming number of deaths that had occurred in the few weeks prior. That number was just shy of 125, 000 worldwide. How naïve we were back then, unknowing how dark our journey with illness, grief and death would become in the long months ahead.
Last year I spoke about anger, one of the common stages of grief as defined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. I was angry — at the virus, at the government, but mostly at myself for feeling incompetent as I struggled each day to maintain normalcy in a world that felt anything but normal. Perhaps, like me, you have moved through the manifestations of grief this past year — denial, bargaining, depression and anger have each taken a turn (or two) as my pervasive mentality.
With the arrival of Passover, we entered our second cycle of holidays clouded by the realities of the pandemic. Many of us gathered around tables with empty chairs. Some emptiness is temporary, the promise of vaccines brings hope that next year we will be together. Some emptiness is permanent. Two million, eight hundred thousand deaths, each connected to families forever shattered by loss. And the number is still growing.
The last stage of grief identified by Kübler-Ross is acceptance. This transformative element of grief has been particularly difficult to achieve during the pandemic. We are not experiencing a single event. We cannot view Covid-19 with the luxury of hindsight — we continue to live this reality each day. We have valid fears for our health, our safety, and our loved ones. We wake up each morning and go to bed each night in the midst of tragedy and trauma. This is not something that I can “accept.”
I’ve found it helpful to return to the wisdom of Kubler-Ross’ definition of acceptance. We seek acceptance not in the sense that “it’s okay that my friend died” rather, “my friend died, but I can be okay.” Or, in our moment, “the pandemic is real and ongoing, but I can be okay.” We don’t have to like it. We shouldn’t like it. We do have to keep living.
Yizkor is acceptance. Yizkor is a validation of life. Gathering, even virtually, among friends, we create a communal space for a shared acceptance of our experience with loss. We enhance our holiday observances by recalling those most precious to us. We sit with memories, both bitter and sweet. Tears fall, smiles form. We speak to our loved ones, saying “I am okay,” even though it will never be “okay” that you are not with me. The wisdom of incorporating the yizkor service into the liturgy of our beloved holidays acknowledges the eternal nature of grief. As we encounter yizkor, we enter into conversation with our loved ones who no longer walk this earth. We tell them that we are okay. We tell ourselves that we are okay. And we pray that this is true.
The next traditional opportunity for yizkor, the memorial service, will take place on the holiday of Shavuot, 5/17-18. http://gty.im/1280811881