‘Here, there is no “why”‘ — grief and mourning in the coronavirus era

Primo Levi, the famous author and Holocaust survivor, recounted his first experience in Auschwitz:

Driven by thirst, I eyed a fine icicle outside the window, within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. “Warum?” I asked him in my poor German. “Hier ist kein warum” (here, there is no ‘why’), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.

In those few words, he depicts the unforgiving cruelty of the infamous death camp. There need not be an explanation for the heartlessness and brutality, as Levi writes, “because the camp has been created for that purpose.”

This passage rattles in my mind as the human toll of the coronavirus has affected literally everyone I know. The absent “why” in our time is not for the same reason it was absent for Levi; in the camps, there was no “why” because there was no explanation needed—the Nazis designed the camps for the purpose of inflicting cruelty on the prisoners and victims. In our times, the “why” is absent because there is no explanation; the suffering—physical, emotional, spiritual—despite being unrelenting and pervasive, also bespeaks randomness that defies understanding.

We attempt to construct a narrative giving meaning to our suffering. Spending the holiday alone? This is a time to develop new traditions. Failing at homeschooling your children? This is an opportunity to learn flexibility in parenting. Lost your job? Sometimes we need to see that we can actually live with less. Saddened by someone you know (or yourself) being ill? We should take more time to be grateful for the little things. A love one has passed away? We need to remember that only God is in charge.

This instinct to ascribe meaning to challenging experiences was noticed by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” Indeed, this is a large part of the work done by psychologists who work in the area of grief and bereavement. In the words of Neimeyer & Sands (2011):

“In the aftermath of life-altering loss, the bereaved are commonly precipitated into a search for meaning at levels that range from the practical (How did my loved one die?) through the relational (who am I, now that I am no longer a spouse) to the spiritual or existential (Why did God allow this to happen?).”

But as we fight to get through today, and we fear what tomorrow may bring, is it fair to expect ourselves to find meaning in this pressure-cooker?

We also attempt to reach out to loved ones for support. But at this time, with so many people struggling, is there a sufficient stockpile of shoulders to lean on? Some may seek out a therapist to provide a safe, comforting space to process their grief, even in this time when a therapist can only provide a virtual space. But are there enough professional comforters, and what happens when the grieving individual is also laid off and cannot afford to pay?
There is also an instinct to present an optimistic and comforting view. In the popular article published two weeks ago, That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief, the interviewer’s questions to Dr. David Kessler, a leading expert in grief and bereavement, had one underlying theme: there must be a way to minimize this grief, and please tell us the secret. If only we thought differently, if only we could focus on the present moment, if only we can focus on what is in our control, we will be able to manage this emotion. In truth, for those who experience what Dr. Kessler identifies as “anticipatory grief,” these suggestions can be useful. But what about those who in the midst of the storm—one of the tens of thousands whose loved one is intubated or has died? As the numbers climb, who among us is not in that category?

I know that, on a global level, there is an end to this upheaval in the not-too-distant future. For some of us, we will reach that destination with losses that are relatively minor and recoverable. I also know that for too many among us, the aftermath of this disease is catastrophic and permanent. So what is there to do now, as the tempest rages on? The scientific literature provides little help; in the volumes I have on my shelf dedicated to topics of psychotherapy for grief and bereavement, there are no chapters focusing on grief during pandemics.

In the face of our grim reality, I believe to be present-minded is to grieve–to allow ourselves to feel grief and mourning for our own losses, to empathically grieve with others for the losses they are experiencing. An attempt to escape the grief is to deny the realities that we face. Of course, we also continue to support our loved ones, maintain a sense of humor in the face of darkness, and pray that this nightmare ends as quickly as it began. But to be in the moment with our loved ones means to accept the grief that we are experiencing.

There will be time in the future for hugging our family and friends. There will be a time in the future to talk about how to move forward after our losses. There will be time in the future to make meaning from these harrowing times, and to commit ourselves to positive actions to honor those who perish. But, for many of us, we are not there yet. For many of us, the best we can muster is feeling grief and sadness. And that’s okay.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh. He writes and lectures on topics of psychology, mental health, and halacha, and is the author of the upcoming book "Talmud on the Mind: Exploring Chazal and Practical Psychology to Lead a Better Life."
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