Mind, Body & Spirit | Opinion

Grieving my husband prepared me for this pandemic

Jews place rocks or pebbles on a headstone when they visit the cemetery as part of an ancient tradition. (Getty Images)
Sari Kahn (Courtesy of Kahn)

WEST HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (JTA) — I’ve been preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic for the past year. No, I am not an alarmist, prophet or a hoarder. I am a 39-year-old mother of four young children — and I am a widow.

My husband, Ari, passed away on March 6, 2019. Over the past two weeks, I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop, that moment I completely lose it and yell at my kids or need to run to my room for some space to cry.

After deep introspection, I realized none of those things are going to happen. My children and I are, unfortunately, extremely well equipped to handle this crisis.

Last year, our entire world was turned upside down, thrown into a washing machine, spun around and spit back out to us sideways and partially soaked.

There is one word to describe the feeling that is overtaking the world now: grief. People often call widows “strong,” but just like you, I am not strong, I am just doing what needs to get done. And today, just like me, you have more to get done. Just like you, I’ve been running my dishwasher and washing machine 24/7.

Are you questioning what will happen tomorrow? Are you waking up every morning in a slight daze trying to figure out if this new reality is actually reality or just a bad dream? Are you experiencing every day like it is “Groundhog Day” because each day is an exact duplicate of the previous one. And who has any time to process what is happening anyway?

These feelings describe “denial,” which is often referred to as the first stage of grief.

When the five stages of grief were initially introduced by Elisabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler in 1969, the mental health community accepted that the stages were linear: denial was followed by anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Current views posit that the five stages of grief are not linear but rather a wave of emotions that can be felt and processed in any order. One doesn’t even have to experience all the stages and may only feel some of them while grieving.

You may be angry that your children are not in school and you need to work from home, bargaining with yourself that if you stay home for 14 days this will all end, depressed and not wanting to get up in the morning or accepting that this just may be the way things are for a long time.

In short, we are all experiencing “widow grief,” which is unique to all other types of grief. Losing a spouse is so traumatic that it diffuses through every fiber of your being.

Are you constantly walking around with an unsettling feeling in your stomach because you don’t know what new hurdle you will have to overcome tomorrow? Have you had to ask a favor of someone you never thought you would need to ask a favor of because you used to be able to take care of everything necessary for your family? Do you feel that silence deep in your bones when you walk outside? Have you noticed the empty seat(s) at your Shabbos table? Are you craving adult conversation?

Are you trying to figure out how to prioritize your work, your children’s schoolwork, housework, meal prep and some self-care? Have you had to ask your children’s school or camp for tuition assistance, something you never had to do before? Are you more tired than usual, even though you are getting more sleep at night? Have you had to cancel a trip or Pesach plans? Do you need to reschedule a simcha and don’t even know when you will be able to reschedule it? Do you feel like a different person? Do you feel any stronger because of what you are going through, or do you feel that you are just doing what needs to get done because you don’t have a choice?

Welcome to my life, the life of a young widow processing grief and a new harsh reality.

Something I can offer you as solace, though, having been through this all before, is the message that your kids will be OK — and even grow because of this.

On Purim, I posted how proud I am of my kids for how they rocked this past year. My 13-year-old twins, Keira and Gitty, are both academically at the top of their classes, co-captains of their winning debate team, stars of the Torah Bowl Team and of their first-place basketball team, and were accepted to the scholars’ programs at each of the three high schools to which they applied. Aliyah, my 11 year-old, is maintaining her 100-test score average, preparing for her bat mitzvah (which will now have to be postponed), has taken up drawing and has mastered the Rubik’s Cube. Matis, aged 10, is the youngest player on the middle school hockey team and just found out that he will be published in Volume 15 of the Grannie Annie Family Story Celebration.

In their book “Option B,” Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant explain that “When kids face trauma, the beliefs that help build resilience become even more critical.” Also, “People often marvel at how resilient kids can be. There are neurological reasons for this: kids have more neural plasticity than adults, allowing their brains to adapt more easily in the face of stress.” Which means that my children are now hard-wired to step up to the plate these days.

I need you all to know that in our current state of Option B, “the beliefs” you instill in your children now during this traumatic time “will help build resilience” in them. I’ve been giving my children daily cleaning jobs. My 10-year-old son has cleaned bathrooms, my 11-year-old daughter has unpacked and put away groceries, and my 13-year-old twins have vacuumed and folded laundry. And they haven’t objected to any of it, despite normally not having to do these tasks, because they understand that as my Zaidy Leon used to say, “This too shall pass.”

My children are a mere example of how your children can also thrive during this pandemic. As parents, we now have an opportunity and responsibility to use this catastrophic moment in time to help our children persevere, thrive and reach their uncharted potential. Imagine the potential our children have inside of them to pivot and succeed. Historian Lucille Iremonger found that 67 percent of British prime ministers from the start of the 19th century to the start of World War II lost a parent before the age of 16. Nearly one-third of U.S. presidents lost their fathers while they were young. In his book “David and Goliath,” Malcolm Gladwell explains that “the death of a mother or father is a spur, a propellant that sends them catapulting into life … chart[ing] their own way” becoming “eminent orphans.”

Ari would have enjoyed this family time now. People always asked us why we drove and didn’t fly to Florida when we went on vacation. We always used the excuse that we had to take our dog Magic with us, but the real reason was that we loved spending that time together all cooped up in our car.

Along with so many things in the world today, Ari’s first yahrzeit did not go as planned. My children and I went to the cemetery and stood outside the fence, as the cemetery was locked because they don’t want any groups of people gathering there now. Ari’s sister and my sister each came by separately to visit us while we were there, and we made sure to keep at least 6 feet between us.

Other relatives went to visit the cemetery during the day, but I purposely did not coordinate with everyone, which was the original plan, because I did not want my children to experience the awkwardness of wanting to hug a relative and not being able to. Throughout the day, we switched off reading aloud emails, messages and texts that were sent to me by family and friends. I had asked for these stories in lieu of the speeches they would have made at a dinner I had planned for close relatives, some of Ari’s work associates and local friends, all people who helped us get through the first year without him. Instead we drove home from the cemetery and I cooked a meal filled with all of Ari’s favorite foods.

There were funny stories that made us laugh, touching memories that made us cry and uplifting messages that made us smile. One message from our friend Sara really stood out.

“Ari would have loved spending all the extra time with family and made it fun,” she wrote. “He would have rocked homeschooling and getting quarantined. He would have been that extra magic in the house.”

Sari Kahn lives in West Hempstead, N.Y., with her four children. She is the director of communications at Midreshet Shalhevet High School for Girls and the founder and director of NCSY Camp Maor, a performing arts overnight camp for Jewish girls.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AJP or its publisher, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.