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A WRITE OF PASSAGE: Timeless Lessons for Your Journey from Shattering Loss to Renewed Life After Pandemic

The First Threshold 





Shattering came quietly to New York City on March 1, 2020, with the news that a woman who lived on the Upper West Side had tested positive for COVID-19 on returning from a trip to Iran. In announcing this new reality Gov. Andrew Cuomo advised that the risk to New York City was very low. On March 15, the first death occurred – the first of a deluge. That day the city went into lockdown.


At that moment, New Yorkers went into exile from our familiar lives, never to return. Like the archetypal journey told in all the myths. Our journey has been an internal one – not across deserts, but alone in our rooms, or with our families in our home, isolated from the customary social structures of our lives.


By March 30, thousands of New Yorkers were overwhelming emergency rooms. Sirens in my heavily immigrant neighborhood, made up of essential workers who had to keep going to their jobs, living six to eight in a small apartment, without English, screamed day and night.


A turning point in my own Covid-19 story occurred in late summer. It had become clear that the president didn't care about the deaths. The economy crashed. At the same time, across the country black people were being murdered by police, not a new story but one that now played in millions of locked down living rooms. The virus had unmasked the centuries of police brutality against people of color. With nothing to distract from the truth, here it was – the heart of darkness at the core of America, now revealed across cities of our land.


We watched too that summer as wildfires devastated the western parts of our country. The land, long abused, was aflame in rage. By August, 220 thousand people had died from the virus; almost 8 million people had been infected and many of those affected for life. Not to mention the millions of families grieving the loss of a beloved family member, economic security, and lack of food to feed their children. The land was flooded with tears.[1]


About five months into quarantine, I realized I was angry at everything; incidents that were ordinarily minor annoyances triggered outrage. Though as an adult I had completely fallen away from Jewish traditions and Jewish community, I began to feel called to watch High Holiday services in September, especially the Yom Kippur yisgor memorial service that closed out the holiday. I watched a reform synagogue's services online -- a congregation similar to the temple of my childhood, with services built around music. Listening to the sacred Kol Nidre, Jews' traditional prayer for release of forced conversion during a time of persecution, calling Jews home, and Avinu Makeinu, the prayer for forgiveness, gave me the safe embrace I so needed to feel the grief that lay beneath my defensive anger. The beautiful melodies, familiar in the folds of sense memory, urged me to lay aside a deep grievance.[2]


I wept. Not for myself, I thought, but for all the suffering people, my crushed city, the sirens wailing in shock and grief, my country, the animals, the land. Each psalm set to music released more weeping. It was a full catharsis of emotions that had been building for months.


I realized that my anger had been a defense against grief. A greater grief even than the present one. The faces behind ICU glass with their frightened eyes merged with the faces peering out from boxcar windows – the faces of my own people, merged into a mass of suffering humanity. Perhaps those faces had been staring out from the cells of my body my whole life, even though I consciously had no personal connection with the Holocaust. Perhaps I had been brought to a place of collective trauma within myself, but also with the strength of the ages that lay within me.


Afterward, I felt lighter, emotionally richer, more deeply connected and more dignified. My stuckness began to dissolve. Although I don't live as a Jew observing Jewish customs, aligning myself with contemporary Jewish community, I carry my formidable lineage in a more accessible way now.


In reflecting later on these things, I was reminded of the broken sign on the door of maximum security where I had stood so confidently two decades earlier: "We come to Unit Z." Back then it reminded me of the entrance to Dante's Inferno: "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." Over the years since, that encounter in maximum security, of all places, has stood as a center for me, solid ground in the ever-shifting reality of my life.


In these last years, as our world – the world we always knew – has ended, writing about the men in max, as their shattered minds regained wholeness for a while within the shelter of story, has been a place of refuge and stability in a time when we have all come to Unit Z.


Loss strips us of everything that has previously defined us and brings us to our core, our essential nature. It corresponds to the beginning of the ancient rite or passage when the initiate is stripped of everything that once identified them in their former life – no longer a royal person or a peasant; no entitlement, no grievance, no county; only a naked human being struggling to survive in a random world.  

[1] A lovely recent book to help you through the grief is The Grief Forest: A Book About What We Don't Want to Talk About," by writer and psychologist Laraine Herring, who has counseled many children and families in times of grief. (Amherst, MA: White River Press, 2020).