By Sybill Pollet, May 2022
On January 18, 2021, at 6:40 in the early evening, a loss changed my life. Michael Pollet, the person with whom I had shared my life for 57 years, from the end of childhood to the beginning of old age, died. Death was not unexpected. With gallows humor, we had often joked that Michael was past his expiration date, since one of his several diseases was both fatal and incurable. A double whammy --fatal and Incurable! Still the news from the hospital, which barred me, because of COVID, was profoundly shocking. Waves of debilitating sadness washed over me. It felt like drowning. Gut punches. I could not catch my breath. Chaos! “Life is a journey. Birth is a beginning and death, a destination”, we read at Yizkor services. So simple. So natural. Oh, but the finality! The brutal “never again” of death. Phone’s ringing. Must be Michael! “Ok, Mikey. Very funny. Joke’s over. You can come back now!” Magical thinking. Jews are good at death and dying. We have rituals, practices, safety nets. We know how to respect the body; clothe it in a white shroud; bury it as soon as possible; tear clothes or a symbolic black ribbon; observe 7 days of shiva, not leave the house, but allow the door to remain open for people to enter and console and bring food, so that mourners are not alone. When my father died, I was given an Orthodox publication, entitled, “In Times of Sorrow, A Manual for Mourners”. A Manual, a book of instructions. Jewish observances provide directions to follow when life is unmoored and the world is upended. Rituals give order: There is something to do in a particular way at a particular time. Order out of chaos. But those rituals didn’t work in January 2021, at the height of a devastating COVID wave. There was no handbook or manual for times of sorrow during a pandemic, when there could be no human contact. With Rabbis Hirsch and Gordon, we would have to adapt the old to create new rituals, write an original playbook. With recognized conventions as a guide, we embarked on explorations, which opened doors to new experiences. Circumstances invited inspiration. Perhaps spiritually meaningful and intimate things happened simply because we left what was familiar. Let me tell you what we did. Because the Hevra Kadisha at Hevreh, who oversee the preparation and guarding of the body between death and burial could not go to the funeral home, Heidi Katz had an extraordinary suggestion: Ask those who loved Michael to think for one hour about protecting and freeing his soul, which, according to tradition, hovers near a body, over the 24 hours prior to burial. Protecting and freeing a soul? “Music is good for my soul,” one might casually say. But assume responsibility for another’s SOUL! Nevertheless, with some trepidation, we agreed to try. It was comforting to think that the energy, spirit, intellect, humor and commitment to social justice that was Michael, what we might call his soul, could not be destroyed, only changed from one form to another and not interred with his body. My daughter Alison took charge of an Excel spreadsheet covering each hour in the day before the funeral. All the hours were booked by family and friends in the new, extraordinary experience of imagining the protection and liberation of a soul. Reports came of an hour thinking of Michael as the sun rose; on a walk with a dog; listening to Mozart; in a quiet, dark room; by candlelight. My grandchildren wept to the songs they associated with their Poppa. “You’ve got to move it, move it!” Protecting a soul, how awesome a notion! The experience was shared by so many in new and meaningful ways that would not have occurred had Hevra Kadisha been “normal,” undertaken by kind people, who might not have known Michael. A zoom shiva is an oxymoron. Mourners are supposed to be a part of a minyan with at least nine others nearby. Jews understand that grief is easier when there is a supportive arm to hold onto. Community. How many words in our prayers end in “nu”? We, rather than I. I wanted to be sure that this strange Zoom shiva would honor Michael and not become one of those sessions when people interrupt one another or talk at the same time. I wrote a script. I was the director. An attempt at Control. Michael had told me that he wanted Albinoni’s Adagio, mournful music in a minor key, written in the early 18th Century, to be played at his funeral. Of course, there was no traditional funeral service. The Shiva became that emotionally charged service, each night of the seven days. Albinoni played as people logged on. And then the 23rd Psalm, tenderly and heartbreakingly sung by the boy soprano in Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. And there was Bach’s version of the 23rd Psalm, as sung by MasterVoices, with me in the Alto section. And a video of Michael’s life, created for his 80th birthday celebration on zoom, three months earlier. After two nights, it felt phony--too choreographed and too exhausting. “Let me do this,” Jodie Gordon said. “I know how.” Relief. I could breathe, let go. So many people each night, from all over the country and the world shared the intensity of this newly constructed experience. Let’s face it, it would be too embarrassing to “leave the meeting” or turn off one’s zoom video. Everyone would know. It may be that when we are able to be in person, a Shiva can be less intensely intimate. We pay respects, talk to the people we know, have a few bites of a bagel with a shmear and go home. We are not obliged to encounter grief face-to-face for a full hour. My Christian friends said they were ready to convert to have a shiva like Michael’s. Some of my Jewish friends signed on every day, because they found the experience so resonant. And on the eighth day, our eyes adjusting to the sun’s glare on the snow, my children, grandchildren and I walked out into a hostile world that dared be oblivious to the cataclysmic change in my life. And then they left. I was alone in a house that felt way too big. I know how to face challenges: evaluate a situation, collect facts, weigh options, consult experts, consider, assess and act. I practiced law for forty years. Control is in my comfort zone. But death and grief defy control. Reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish on Friday nights and Saturday mornings structured the weekends. A prayer of gratitude, when you might not be feeling particularly grateful, Kaddish is not supposed to be recited all alone on Zoom. You are supposed to say Kaddish standing with nine others, shoulder to shoulder. Still, even on zoom, saying Michael’s name aloud had an unexpected impact. There is power in a name, particularly a name that had been on your lips, at the beginning and end of each day. It is said that one dies twice: once when you take your final breath and once when the last person says your name. Saying Michael’s name each week became a responsibility. Maybe it was a way of holding on, not allowing the time when no one would say his name, and he would die for the second time. Oh, but when the time comes to etch the name in granite, the reality is stark. Death is written in stone. “Why not join the Creative Beit Midrash, a creative study group, on Saturday mornings on zoom?” Neil Hirsh asked when he telephoned to check-in. “They’re your people.” I resisted, but since I had no other plans for Saturday mornings at 8:30 am, I joined. I reached out, and generous strangers reached back. The only art I had ever done was botanical illustration, where the goal is to accurately represent a plant, counting veins and petals, using a magnifying glass, calipers and a ruler. Controlled art. Stephen Sondheim said, “All art is a powerful tool for making order out of chaos”—giving interpretation and sense to the world that we cannot really understand. Each week, the Creative Beit Midrash considered one another’s paintings, poetry, writings, photography and music in the context of Jewish texts and themes—walls, conversations, paradoxes, journeys. The adventurous and supportive spirit of this group allowed risk taking. Back in New York City, COVID confined again in a house that felt way too big, I gave myself daily challenges to create order, such as “Do something you have never done before!” I had never done life drawings with live models or done paper cuttings in the style of Matisse; or taken classes devoted only to Jane Austen; or been a part of an Opera Club or Film Club or a group that reads Joyce’s Ulysses aloud each week. Between zoom and the internet, I found limitless opportunities for new ideas, epiphanies, and discoveries. My hour-by-hour scheduling imposed an order in the chaos. “When do you sleep?” my friends asked. I had to acknowledge to myself that there was a sort of frenzy about my days. Downtimes were scary. Sad was scary. A busy life is not necessarily a meaningful life. Another mid-course re-evaluation and recalibration on the journey. I am my own work in progress. I thought about what it might be like to feel peaceful. I joined a group at Hevreh exploring Musar, the goal of which is the peaceful soul, the good life, the true self. In a discussion of vulnerability, my wise Musar partner, Lori Pine, suggested that we are all vulnerable and broken. Only when we can accept that truth and live without the hard shell of invincibility and control, might we be open to entirely new experiences. She reminds me of the Buddhist teaching that “control is illusory”. The journey continues. I’ve learned a few things: Grief is not a straight road. There are no arbitrary stages, which, once completed, end a grieving process. Grief can be physiological. One can be stuck in grief, a new clinical diagnosis. Death can be an important teacher that asks ultimate, existential questions: What leads to a meaningful and good life? How does one shape a life, which reflects how one wants to be remembered? Death demands gratitude for life. Waking up each morning is not a given. Modeh ani lefanecha. So, here I am on this trip, without a GPS. The destination is fixed. The estimated time of arrival hasn’t been calculated. My journey continues from the shadows in the valley of death into light. What really matters, it seems to me, is the courage to face the chaos with honesty and self-compassion. One can even embrace the chaos as evidence that the intensity with which one has grieved reflects the intensity of one’s capacity for love. And, on the journey, sometimes behind the doors of the untried and unfamiliar may be unexpected and profound gifts.