The sun did not rise outside my Bay Area home last week. My three-year-old, who usually wakes at dawn, awoke at 9 a.m. confused; pointing to a dark orange sky, obliterated by clouds of smoke from wildfires billowing all over the West Coast.
Come fall, the New Year will once again not be an ordinary one. I will have celebrated Rosh Hashanah in my living room, connected for the second year in a row by video conference technology to my community; the West Coast of North America will probably still be burning, and the entire globe faces another COVID-19 surge. Everything is changing. We can’t even depend on the sun to shine at noon. We have all faced so much loss this past year, but have we taken time to grieve and adapt?
Some of the losses have been obvious and clear: precious people have died, countless homes and habitats have burnt down, and jobs have been lost. Other losses are more amorphous. We don’t yet know what we will get back from the old world: will our kid’s school stay open? Will our business stay afloat?
I am a rabbi who offers spiritual care for people who are grieving and dying. I have learned from my clients that grief is essential; without naming the loss we are unable to draw together and comfort each other, and we remain isolated in our suffering. Without honouring grief, loss remains unreal—we cannot adapt and find new ways of being and doing. There is a cavernous absence of public grieving for the momentous losses we have all experienced in 2021.
Just consider the scale of resources given to grieving the 2,977 lives lost in 9/11, versus the 648,000 Americans and 27,020 Canadians (and counting) who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic. Why are we not mourning more? Much of this disparity is linked to who is dying (at least in the public imagination), and the prevailing belief that only old, sick, and disabled people die of COVID-19.
Mourning is humanizing, and its absence cracks open the door to atrocities.
My Jewish ancestors were snatched off the street by SS officers and buried in mass graves. My queer ancestors were denied funerals out of fear and bigotry as they died of AIDS. My disabled ancestors were warehoused in institutions, and often buried without names on their graves. My trans ancestors are left murdered in alleys, their cases growing cold, as I write this.
Despite this lack of official lamentation, they found ways to mourn and be mourned by each other. Grief has always been a way for disenfranchised people to claim our value.
After surviving the Holocaust in Belgium, my great-grandmother Rivka moved to England. Before she died, she took my father out to the coal heap behind their home and told him, “Swear on this mountain, that you will mourn for me.” To this day, I feel bound by this oath made by my nine-year-old father long before I was born, to grieve for this woman I never met, whose face looks so much like mine.
My friend, Stacey Park Milbern, died on May 19, 2020, her 33rd birthday. She did not die from COVID-19, but from battling for care in the beleaguered medical system as a disabled activist and a person of colour in an era of pandemic. I attended her funeral from my living room. I picked white geraniums and purple thyme from my garden and held my partner close. The Internet was flooded with what Stacey taught us.
Disabled activist Alice Wong wrote an obituary on loving Stacey and the radical world of love and care she had built. Wong’s post was filled with Stacey’s own words on her legacy, “I do not know a lot about spirituality or what happens when we die, but my crip queer Korean life makes me believe that our earthly bodyminds is but a fraction, and not considering our ancestors is electing only to see a glimpse of who we are.”
While I continue to ache against the unfairness of it all, reading Stacey’s words and Wong’s tribute and mourning for Stacey, restored my sense of self-love as a disabled person.
Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the new year, but it is also a time to say goodbye to the year that passed. Our ancestors, like us, lived in times of chaos and change. Tears are a central High Holy Day theme. All the traditional Torah and Haftarah readings for Rosh Hashanah speak of weeping.
The shofar itself is a symbol of tears. Our sages said that the animal horn we blow must be kakuf (bent) to reflect our own bodies bent over in grief; while the pattern of shofar blasts we sound on Rosh Hashanah sound like weeping. Shevarim (the broken blasts of the shofar) are meant to echo the sound of our own tears, which are always surrounded by tekiah (whole sounds). This teaches us that broken hearts have the capacity to be whole again and, in fact, will be more complete for having encompassed brokenness.
Grief is transformative. When we name the immensity of loss, we also claim the depth of our capacity for love.
An earlier version of this essay first appeared in The Forward, on Sept 14, 2020.
Header image design by Orly Zebak and Clarrie Feinstein.
Elliot Kukla is a rabbi, writer, painter, disability activist, and a trans/non-binary educator. His writing appears in the New York Times, and his work is frequently featured in the media including on Democracy Now, NPR, and National Geographic. For the past 15 years he has offered spiritual care to those who are dying or bereaved; his current work is focused on disabled and queer wisdom for adapting to this era of planetary transition. He lives in Oakland with his partner, their kid, two Boston Terriers and a cat named Turkey.