As a therapist, I’ve learned that ultimately, all therapy is grief therapy—the knowledge that in this lifetime, we’re always dealing with loss of some kind: loss of identity, loss of innocence, loss of dreams, loss of a loved one.

When the coronavirus hit the world and it became evident that this was a pandemic of epic proportions, I, like everyoneAll therapy is grief therapy else on this planet, was thrown into a new reality. I wondered if all of my personal and professional work during the past 40 years could possibly sustain me and my loved ones and my beloved “students” (aka clients). I knew that this global crisis was of a totally different nature. And so, would I be able to hold onto the “rope” of faith and trust in G‑d that was now shaking and challenging our reality?

Then came the news that my son-in-law, Shalom, in Monsey, N.Y., had been hospitalized. Not being able to travel to be there to be with my daughter and grandchildren (who were also sick with the virus) added to the anxiety. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness overwhelmed our family as we tried desperately to hold onto any ray of hope. That week of his hospitalization was lost in panic, anxiety and dread, begging for any shred of possibility that he would recover and regain his health.

That was not to be. My son-in-law passed away on Shabbat, the 10th day of Nissan. The dreaded call came right after a Shabbat of intense praying. Impossible! This was supposed to be a month of miracles? The month of redemption—of going from slavery to freedom? Shalom? My son-in-law, who for 33 years was more like a son to me ... whose very presence represented shalom, “peace,” to all who knew and loved him. He was truly a rock to his family and friends—a responsible, reliable and respectful mensch. How could our world exist without him?

To add to our anguish were the restrictions against travel. We couldn’t support each other physically with our presence, our collective grief, our hugs, and the strength of family love. The following day was the funeral, which we witnessed on Zoom (from all over the world: England, Australia, Israel). It was almost an insult to our senses—the coldness of technology, and yet the relief of somehow seeing each other and being able to go through this nightmare “together.”

Three days later, we needed to celebrate the holiday of Passover. Always, these days have been such a beloved time for our family. Now they passed like a blur. Being alone, apart, afraid; still, we went through the motions somehow. I found that all I could do was put myself on automatic, wondering if there were enough tissues in the world to wipe away the tears.

The weekly Torah portion recalled theThree days later, we needed to celebrate Passover untimely deaths of the two sons of Aaron, the High Priest. Aaron’s response was vayidom, he was silent. That resonated with me. No words. Silence. The magnitude of this loss was so overwhelming that no thought or feeling could even be expressed. I waited. I waited patiently and impatiently for time to pass, for the ability to breathe consciously in the present moment. I turned to the painstaking work of allowing both the tears of grief and trauma, and of training and retraining my brain to stay away from the would/should/could of the past and the insistent anxiety of the future.

Being in the mental-health field (probably since I was 5 years old!), I have always tried to find the philosophy and the psychology behind the mysteries of life—to give reason and meaning to people, places and events that seemed so random—when it all seemed so desolate. And, of course, to learn how to function when the pain cannot be contained.

Gradually, over the years, I developed some direction, some tools and a set of beliefs that allows me to “hold these truths to be self-evident.” Now, in a deeper way, I needed to come back to them. Perhaps they will also be helpful to others.

  1. Know that I don’t know. Maimonides says the highest knowledge is “to know that we don’t know.” That certainly keeps us humble and puts everything into perspective. What can we really know about this lifetime? Past lifetimes? Our soul’s journey? It’s an eternal tease to have a brain that naturally wants to know and yet at so many points in life, we are blocked from knowing.
  2. Listen to the body. The mind-heart-body connection is so real. Listening to what the body is saying is vital for our mental and physical health. Physical symptoms beg for recognition and understanding. I couldn’t budge my body beyond what it was capable of doing. Nausea, loss of appetite, uncontrollable crying, indifference, despair—all became my new companions.
  3. Accept without judgement. This is one of the hardest. The phrase, Baruch Dayan ha-emet, “Blessed is the true Judge,” is easy to say, but not to internalize. G‑d does not serve me and my limitations. I am here to serve Him. I know that I can and will struggle with my response to pain and grief, it will be anger, denial, fight, flight, fear, etc. But in the end, my mental health depends on my ability to accept reality without judgement.
  4. No comparing or competing. Everyone grieves in his or her individual way. There isn’t a right or wrong way to respond to loss; we must honor our own feelings. For guidelines and perspective, we need only look to the Torah for help and even inspiration.
  5. There will be questions, but no answers. There are so many questions: Why me? Why us? What could we have done to prevent this? Was there enough care when he went to the hospital? Will there be recovery from this chaos—this inconsolable heartbreak in our lives? Can there ever be healing? What can we expect from ourselves, our world, our future?
  6. Living with the duality of grieving and moving forward. The utter duality of this world becomes so poignant. When thrown by a tragedy, things seem unreal. Trauma often hijacks our connection to reality. Should we be able to enjoy a sunny day? The smell of spring? A new little life blessing this family? The pendulum of feelings and thoughts swings back and forth, sometimes violently, often with surprise, and without notice or time to adjust. At the same time, it is imperative that grieving doesn’t hold us back from moving forward and living the life I know my son-in-law would want us to have.

Written for the shloshim of my dear son-in-law, Shalom Halevy A”H ben Shmuel Gurewicz

Dearest Shalom, you are sorely missed by all who know and love you. That love is eternal, and we pray for the time when our tears will turn to joy, and once again we can be united.