Sermon for YK Yizkor 2020 ~ Connected by Shared Grief

A couple of years ago I saw a piece on the news about Robi Damelin and Bushra Awad. They are spokespeople for an organization called Parents’ Circle Family Forum. I watched this story and it was one of those things that seemed so crazy that it just might be genius. The Parents’ Circle brings together Israeli and Palestinian parents of young people who have been killed in the conflict – bereaved parents – and sits them down together for reconciliation. “What?!?” I thought to myself. “That’s insane. That’s absurd. They must be so angry. If they meet there’ll be yelling. There’ll be attacking. They must be so angry. It would be a disaster.”

Robi Damelin is the mother of David, a Tel Aviv University honors student and a soldier killed in 2002 by a sniper while tending a checkpoint in Gaza. Bushra Awad’s son Mahmoud was killed at age 18 while demonstrating in Gaza, even though his mother told him not to do such things and rather to stay home and study. They were brought together by the Parent’s Circle. And when they met, there wasn’t yelling, or attacking or accusations or anything of the sort. There were tears, though. Lots of shared tears. As Robi Damelin puts it, “It’s all the same tears on that pillow. There is no difference.” And that is the philosophy of the Parents Circle Family Forum – that no matter how deep our differences and our experiences, even between the victims of the most bitter and entrenched conflicts, we can be connected by grief.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that idea lately, that we can be bonded by shared grief, drawn closer together by understanding each other’s pain, because that is the reality of our situation. Thank God, for most of us this pandemic has not brought the kind of grief these mothers must feel, though there have been losses, of course. Still, since March we have been going through a pattern of grief unlike anything we have ever experienced before. To be clear, when I say grief I don’t just mean being sad, I mean a process and reaction to loss that encompasses a lot of emotions at different times in response to a loss.

On March 30th, just a few weeks after the shutdowns and the coronavirus started spreading wildly, Dr. Robert Weiss wrote in Psychology Today:

Today we are all grieving. We are grieving the loss of our freedoms, a predictable future, and the lives and roles left behind in our communal rush away from the coronavirus. Our grief equally involves our captains of industry and those who make our sandwiches. All of us are fearful about work, health, our families, and our shared future in ways that were unimaginable just a short time ago. We are afraid for our parents and grandparents, our children, our jobs, our country, our way of life, and, perhaps most deeply, our own mortality.

Dr. Weiss is exactly correct – and if it was true when he wrote it on March 30th, it only got worse as weeks and months passed by. Dr. Weiss goes on to speak about the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. And during these months of pandemic we have all been grieving, but differently and at different paces. We were leaping from stage to stage forward and backward, often managing through the grief over more than one issue or loss at the same time – In my house, first we were grieving school, though we were sure it would start up again in a couple of weeks – denial. Then it was “I’ll do anything if they can just get back before the end of the year” – bargaining. Then sadness, and finally acceptance as we settled into the routine of virtual school. And then Passover loomed and we went through all the same steps. And summer camp and realizing we couldn’t see our family. I imagine it was similar in your life. Grieving the loss of normal days, milestones, seeing family and friends, and then real losses, people dying of Covid or other ailments and we had to grieve the ability to mourn with funerals and shiva – how twisted is that?

And the fact that one person in the household might be in the stage of denial about school closing for the year while another is in the stage of depression about a seder without guests made it feel odd and lonely – like we were living in the same households, but on different planets – oh yeah, and we were together experiencing this 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Madness!

But then we come back to that insight from the Parents’ Circle and their absurd, genius philosophy – grief as a shared experience can bring us together, bond us as a community. This is how Judaism has always handled grief. It is what shiva and sheloshim and 11 months of saying kaddish are all about. When you have a loss our faith doesn’t give us a chance to be in denial – Jewish wisdom sticks us at home in our grief and says sit in it, literally, sit for a week. And what happens during that week? You are comforted by guests, the whole community comes over to share your grief. And then while you are saying kaddish, you come to minyan, or these days maybe log into minyan, to connect with the community around your grief. It is so important and I have been encouraged that we have been able to provide opportunities for people to say kaddish throughout this pandemic, online and in-person (by the way, if you are able to attend minyan and are comfortable doing so, once a week or once a month in-person, we need a few more regulars to keep it going).

What is peculiar about the grief we’ve been experiencing during COVID is that we are all going through the process of grieving at the same time. Remember, it’s not that we are all sad all the time – that’s not the kind of grief we are talking about. We are talking about the stages of grief hat include sadness, but also include anger, denial and so forth. It’s hard to help share someone else’s grief when we feel like we are already full to the brim with our own, going through our own process. But the wisdom of our faith is still no different. Like those sitting shiva, we also need to sit in our grief and be honest with each other and ourselves about our pain and loss. It is real and we don’t have to apologize for it. When someone asks you how you’re doing, you don’t have to say, “We’re fine,” or even “We’re fine, all things considered. I mean no one in the family is sick or anything” No you’re not. No one experiences what we have all experienced and comes out “fine.” So be honest when people ask you – “You know what? It’s been hard and we’ve had our struggles, but we have a lot to be grateful for.” That’s an answer that will promote healing, because it reminds us that we are not alone in our grieving process. This time can be so isolating in so many ways, but this is a way we are all connected.

When we are honest with each other, we can realize the most important truth – that we are linked by our experience of grief, we have all been struggling in one way or another, and we can grow with it and dedicate it to a brighter future together. Just as this Yizkor service encourages us to remember the best of our loved once passed and use that inspiration to do what they would have done and continue their blessing in this world, so too with this shared grief. It connects us as a community as much as anything else and we can similarly use it to grow and be inspired to be better as a community.

Grief is awful – it is a terrible emotion that can be paralyzing – but it doesn’t have to be. When we share it with each other, you never know what crazy goodness can come into the world. Even Robi Damelin and Bushra Awad who experienced the worst kind of grief, even they believe this. Robi has shared a letter she wrote to David not too long ago:

David My Beloved,

Not a day goes by without your haunting smile that touches my very being. They all told me the day you died that it is terrible now, but you will learn to live with this pain next to you. In a way, that is true, but still I guess the hole in my heart will never heal. I miss going with you to concerts, cooking and movies and even listening to endless philosophical questions on Heidegger, etc. Your mother was always a fixer, but this pain I cannot fix.  I wonder what you would think of the course my life has taken since you were killed on that terrible day. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to do something to prevent other mothers, both Israeli and Palestinian from suffering this endless ache. I have told your story to people all over the world and I promise even though you are no longer here you still manage to inspire and to make a difference.

To quote you – lot’s of love,


And Bushra, mother of Mahmoud days, “Because of going to the forum I helped my children change the way they think. They used to participate in demonstrations. Little by little I convinced them not to.”

That letter, that teaching in memory of their sons, that is what Yizkor is all about. As we turn to our Yizkor prayers, may we be so inspired by the memory of those we remember today, and yes, even by the grief of their loss. And may we support each other in all the grief we are experiencing to use it as a lever for creativity, community and comfort to make this world better – it needs us now as much as ever.

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