Kol Nidre – Ambiguous Loss

As the story is told, scientists determined that within two weeks the entire world would be destroyed by a catastrophic flood. The entire planet would be totally under water and there is nothing that could be done about it. All the major religions convened their greatest leaders to discuss how to prepare their congregations for the end. Some preached repentance, others stressed accepting God’s plan with humility while a number pointed to the promise of an afterlife.

The, however, Rabbis took a different approach. They said:  “Listen, people: We have two weeks to learn how to live under water.”

Jewish survival is no joke, of course. The Jewish people continues to exist because of our ability to recognize and embrace change; or as we say today, to pivot to a new reality.

It turns out we aren’t the first generation to discover suddenly that we couldn’t gather to as a community to pray. That distinction goes to Jews of the first century, whose Jerusalem Temple was razed and who themselves were exiled. Instead of gathering in Jerusalem, they had no choice but to build decentralized places of assembly new form of Judaism centered on a place of assembly called the synagogue.

The emergence of a novel coronavirus has led to lock downs, physical distancing and improvised masking. Places of worship turn out to make excellent super-spreader sites, so we’ve taken refuge on the internet, where we’ve been gathering, learning, playing and praying, trying to build a sense of connection and community. Since March, we’ve tried to adjust to the new normal. Yet, It’s not clear how to adjust to the “new normal” when the “new normal” is an ever-changing situation.

Dr Ann Masten, who has written extensively on resilience, maintains It is precisely the open-ended nature of the pandemic that makes it exquisitely difficult. She writes: “These past six months have brought an unprecedented disaster for most of us that is profound in its impact on our daily lives. But it’s different from a hurricane or tornado – then you can look outside and see the damage. The devastation of COVID 19 is, for most people, invisible, internal and ongoing.”

Just think about what we’ve been through: in March and April and May, there was a sense that this will end; that the safer at home lockdown is something we have to do so that we can get through this. And even things that got cancelled got rescheduled for, first, July and August, and then September, October.

Krista Tippet, the host of NPR’s “On Being,” put it this way:

“And I feel like it’s really settling in now, the losses… large and small… People have lost loved ones. But there’s also this loss of going to the office; of certainty, like that your kids will go to school. My son,” she said, “didn’t really graduate from college. Some of these things, people will bounce back from. I actually really trust that our kids — who knows how this will affect them? It might be transformative in generative ways that we can’t imagine. And yet, there are all these losses, large and small, all at once. And we’re carrying them individually, personally, but we’re also carrying them at the same time.”

It has been a year of losses. From deaths and illnesses, to the disruption of the things that set the cadence of our lives: school, work, celebrating, socializing. All have been transformed and we don’t know for how long and if they’ll ever go back to the way they were. From deaths that could not be mourned, to the very structure of our days, to a sudden crash of what felt like solid careers and plans and dreams.

Further complicating matters, are the losses resulting from the pandemic intersecting with the increasingly fraught political divisions in the country. I know I have lost a measure of peace to politics, racial unrest, media and to a lack of confidence in the upcoming elections. For some, the convergence of Covid-19 and politics has become the last straw in ending relationships, whether it’s a family member refusing to wear a mask, a friend promoting the latest conspiracy theory, or a co-worker insisting Covid-19 deaths are exaggerated.

There’s a shared despair in the air. And questions: When will this pandemic end? How will we make it through November third and beyond? Will we be consumed by forces beyond our control? Or will we regain mastery of our lives, take control, join together and proceed resolutely? Will we, at long last, learn to live underwater?

A response to these questions begins with the recognition that the losses we face are ambiguous losses. This term was coined by Dr. Pauline Boss to describe losses that hold no promise of resolution or closure. Closure, of course, is a misnomer, a mirage. As those who have suffered a loss know, you don’t get over it but you can get through it.

I personally encountered an ambiguous loss in the days following 9/11. My brother in law, Andy’s death, was, in some ways, more like a disappearance. For many who perished at the twin towers, there was no body to recover, nothing to bury, no dispositive proof that he had died. Yes, there were families who, five or six years later, answered a knock on the door to learn a bone fragment with DNA had been recovered, but not my sister. I now understand why families are so grateful, even decades later, to be reunited with the body of a loved one.

Beyond losses through death, severe illness, or economic hardship, the minor losses, too, have been very real and need to be acknowledged and mourned. Weddings and graduations were cancelled, rescheduled, or cut down in size. Grandparents can’t hug their grandkids; others won’t visit their older parents. That loss of touch, of daily intimacies, is, in its own way, devastating.

The sum total of these losses, large and small, have multiplied levels of stress and anxiety, a situation aptly described in the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy:

“And your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall fear day and night and shall have no assurance of your life. In the morning you’ll say: “If only it were evening!” And in the evening, you’ll say: “If only it were morning!”—because of the dread that your heart shall feel and the sights that your eyes shall see.” (28:66-67) At its worst, this  is the limbo in which we find ourselves.

In addition to being open ended, ambiguous losses can leave us living in two, parallel realities.  Poet Donna Carnes’ husband went sailing on San Francisco Bay and disappeared. She lives in a quantum state; in the absence of a definitive answer, her husband, like Schrödinger’s hypothetical cat, is simultaneously both dead and alive. She captured this experience in a poem entitled: “Walk On.”

“You walk on / Still beside me, / Eyes shadowed in dusk; / You’re the / Lingering question / At each day’s end. / I have to laugh / At how / Open-ended you remain— / Still with me / After all these years / Of being lost. / I carry you like / My own personal / Time Machine, / As I put on my lipstick, smile, / And head out to / The party.”

American history is a tale of ambiguous losses. After the Civil War, many Jonnies didn’t come marching home again, nor were their bodies returned. So too, the dislocation caused by the uprooting of indigenous native tribes, and of Africans brought to America in chains. Every generation of immigrants, too, creates a set of ambiguous losses.

It’s even there in the Torah. Jacob, grasping his son’s bloodied cloak and crying out: “this is my son’s . . . a wild beast devoured him; Joseph is torn, torn apart.” (Genesis 37:33) Jacob refusing to be comforted. Years turning into decades of dark grief because there was no corpse to bury, only an empty pit in Jacob’s heart.

Unambiguous loss can occur in a different way; when we haven’t physically lost a friend or loved one but when that loss is of memory and personality. Dementia is an ambiguous, irresolvable loss, a physical presence and psychological absence, that makes people incrementally disappear.

Their loved ones and caregivers say: I’ve been grieving for years even though my loved one is still alive. And when death finally renders the ambiguous loss unambiguous, only then can grieving can follow a more customary path.

Another form of ambiguous loss comes with divorce. As a rabbinic colleague describes:

“When you divorce, it’s as if you compartmentalize the Person You Were: you put her in a box called “the past,” and your access to her is limited. You no longer are that person: that part of your life is over. But occasionally there are things that remind you that “she” is actually “you,” and you’ve become divorced (yes) from that part of yourself. There’s no real closure for that kind of grief.”

Getting divorced is an ongoing experience of coming to terms with ambiguity. You can be thriving in every way — and then be knocked into a spiral of sorrow by the sound of a particular song or a wedding invitation in the mail. The grief doesn’t negate that you are thriving, and the thriving doesn’t negate the truth that you are still navigating grief.

Death, dementia, divorce, the exigencies of the coronavirus pandemic – present a range of ambiguous losses and complicated grief. How can we use this season to respond proactively and constructively to the ambiguous losses we are experiencing? Here are some preliminary thoughts:

First, avoid judging the grief of others. One’s pain is, in essence, incomparable. And these pain is the aggregate result of current pains reawakening past hurts. Which is why grief is not a linear process. In reality, grief comes and goes to its own unknowable rhythm.

In addition to not comparing our losses to those of others, we can adopt the quantum view, the both/and view, the recognition that what we’ve lost is gone but is also still here with us. Like the poet Donna Carnes wrote after the disappearance of her husband, we can take solace in the idea that those who are gone are still with us, embedded in our souls, and occasionally accompanying us on walks.

Last, we can focus on maintaining and strengthening our relationships, in the here and now. Our ability to face adversity is strongly dependent on social support and remaining connected to people, and that includes helping others, even when we’re feeling depleted ourselves. Helping others could include checking in on family friends or buying groceries for an elderly neighbor. It could also include a physically distanced walk in the park with a close friend or serving as a poll worker. Don’t let the virus keep you more than 6 to 8 feet away from others.

On Yom Kippur in antiquity, the priests, kohanim, would find two identical goats to sacrifice. One goat was offered to God on the altar, symbolic of wholeness and purity; and the other was sent into the wilderness to fall off a cliff, representing the casting away of sin. One goat represented repentance. The other goat represented life’s darker times, moments of suffering and misery.

At this season, the Talmud’s Rabbi Yehoshua explained that the two goats were metaphors for our live, containing a message for us to never to lose hope. He said we are placed on earth to enjoy the transcendent moments of celebration and gratitude, which, in turn, counterbalance the times of deep pain and suffering.

And then, from within the depths of our sorrow, we find the potential for light and hope. Or, as Søren Kierkegaard put it: “Faith sees best in the dark.”

Friends, like the goats, we too are creatures of darkness and light, wholeness and brokenness, sickness, and health. Our days are punctuated by losses, big and small, ambiguous and not. Yet we emanate from the same sacred source; and we must lean on one another to reach toward light and hope, toward the good.

In this New Year, 5781:

may we know acceptance and satisfaction and goodness.

May the losses we endure not prevent us from reaching out to each other, even at the moment we ourselves are broken.

And may those losses help us return to God, to each other, and to the vision of the best people we can be. AMEN

Rabbi David B. Cohen.

Congregation Sinai

Milwaukee, Wisconsin 5781