Finding Medicine in Grief

Grief threatens to tear us apart. I went searching for its power to bring us together.

Digital collage of a heart, dried flowers, & the silhouette of a couple cut out of a photo, on a speckled brown background.
Collage designs by Megan Kwan

On October 7, 2023, I awoke to the news of Hamas’ assault on Israel with a visceral, full-bodied feeling of dread. I knew that day that I would soon be hearing from people in my Jewish community about their grief, fear, and lost family. The heavy dread I felt in my limbs, though, was more about what the Israeli government’s response would be.

I’ve worked as an independent journalist for the last decade, and as the son of a Jewish child survivor of the Holocaust, I’ve often been drawn to covering human rights issues. This has included work on Israel/Palestine for Jewish publications, so I know the history and politics of the region well. I was worried the Israeli response would be massive and crushing, and I felt in my guts a cold horror for what Palestinian civilians were likely to suffer. 

“Here we go again,” I thought. 

As events unfolded in the following days, my psyche was awash in various colours of grief. I was unable to sleep or stop checking the news. Someone in Winnipeg called to tell me an old friend had been taken hostage in Gaza—they were later found to have been killed. A family I know in Vancouver, BC, posted online that a homestay student who had lived with them for years was gunned down by Hamas. I knew these people, and each piece of news felt like a knife wound. 

At the same time, Israeli officials were speaking of “flattening Gaza” and had begun the terrifying combined assault of siege and bombing of the impoverished, densely populated strip, where most residents are children. Palestinians were already being killed in large numbers, and I feared it was just the beginning.

Haunted

In the months that followed, I wrestled with a searing internal pain that shifted back and forth— between grief at the dehumanization, torture, and slaughter of Palestinians, and rage at those actively involved in or justifying it. How could they not hear the future echoes of this violence, which will surely resound with the destruction of yet more bodies and souls in both Israel and the occupied territories? I felt grief at the destruction of Palestinian lives, and rage at the refusal of mainstream Jewish communities to acknowledge what was happening or confront our part in it. 

Beyond the images of ruined schools, mosques, churches, and neighbourhoods, beyond dust-covered men lifting rocks to find those buried beneath, beyond women keening below skies filled with F-16 fighter jets, the image that has most come to define the war in Gaza for me is that of mothers writing their children’s names on their limbs in marker. They do this so the children can be identified if they are buried underneath rubble created by Israel’s bombs. This image filled me with a sick hopelessness and despair. Here again was the brutal logic of dehumanization that had stalked my own family during the Holocaust.

What is the process of grieving? Why should we undertake it, and what gifts lie in it for us?

As the weeks became months, I began to suspect that I had to do something to understand and deal with my grief, or else be condemned to ever-increasing agitation, rage, and doomscrolling. I am not alone in having this realization; grief has become a defining emotion of our times. The trauma of Covid and lost loved ones, the increasing fragmentation of our society, the reckoning with the legacy of residential schools, and the rise of international instability and the global right are all reasons to grieve. And as backdrop, we have the unfolding and grief-inducing climate disaster, with its destruction of seasonal commonplaces, wild animals, beauty, and safety. 

The zeitgeist reflects this awareness. For a year and a half, CNN broadcaster Anderson Cooper has been exploring his own and others’ grief on the podcast All There Is. Comedic scion and Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy’s feature-directing debut was 2023’s Good Grief, exploring the healing of grief (and its challenges). 

As I sought to understand my own grief—Why did it have the intensity it did? And why did it live so close to rage?—I began speaking with others and asking questions. What is the process of grieving? Why should we undertake it, and what gifts lie in it for us? Is there a difference between communal and individual grief? Their answers, and the questions they had for me, began showing me a way to understand my own grief and come to a place where it no longer led to overwhelming agitation and rage. 

Grieving together

Several friends and people I know through activism in Vancouver—where I live—have been attending a “grief and action circle” for anti-Zionist Jews over the last few months. Participants meet in person every two weeks or so to share their struggles, grieve together, and empower each other in resisting the ongoing assault on Palestinians. I haven’t been able to attend myself, but I’ve found merely knowing about its existence a great comfort.

The circle is co-led by mia susan amir—an artist, activist, and educator whose website describes her as a “queer, Crip and Mad Jew of mixed Ashkenazi and Sephardic ascent”—and Orev Reena Katz, an artist, therapist, prison chaplain, and Hebrew priestess ordained by the Kohenet Institute. 

amir—who was born in Israel/Occupied Palestine—spoke with me about why they chose to focus on grief as well as action. “Many people call for empathy for everyone involved, both Israeli and Palestinian,” she said about the current war. “But without first truly grieving the violence, the injustice, the loss, it is difficult to connect to an authentic empathy.”

To speak of the gifts of grief can suggest a benevolence where there is none. To speak of “medicine” is just to speak of the truth that allowing grief can result in healing.

“Grief requires collective presence for a full digestion,” said amir. “We need witness, we need holding, mutual care. The medicine [of the grief circle] has been to de-individualize the layered, complex nature of the grief people have held, and transmute it so as to have the room to continue to organize for Palestinian liberation.”

Jessica Waite—an award-winning essayist whose husband died suddenly of a heart attack in 2015 while away on a business trip—had a similar message about the importance of collective presence. “Grief, when it first hits, it is like being burned by a hot glue gun,” she told me. “At first it’s nuclear, and then a shell forms over the blister. This shell can be isolating, and inside it sits this pain.”

After her husband’s death, Waite’s grief was compounded when she began to discover that he had hidden infidelities and addictions from her. Her experience is the subject of her upcoming delightfully named book, The Widow’s Guide to Dead Bastards. It also inspired her to create Endless Stories, an online community where members share memories of those they’ve lost. “When you bring your grief into community,” she said, “the pain can be experienced as more bearable, and less isolating.”

Waite—who is of Scots-Irish descent and lives in Calgary, AB—first experienced this when she went to a drum circle where she was able to sit and cry among others. “Grief would move in a gentler way in a safe communal space than when I was alone and it was just agonizing,” she said.

Not gifts, but medicine

I began talking with people about grief by asking them what gifts conscious grieving holds. But when I spoke to Jillian Christmas, she gently suggested that it was better to think not of the “gifts” of grief, but rather of its “medicine”—a term amir had also used. To speak of the gifts of grief can suggest a toxic positivity or benevolence where there is none; to speak of “medicine” is just to speak of the truth that allowing oneself to grieve can result in healing. This healing can be unexpected in its nature and go beyond lessening the pain of loss, as important as that is. 

Christmas is a queer, Afro-Caribbean writer, educator, and curator based in East Vancouver. She is the spoken word curator of the Vancouver Writers Festival, the former artistic director of the Verses Festival of Words, and the author of a poetry collection: The Gospel of Breaking. In her role as the first-ever poet in residence at the Vancouver Art Gallery, she installed a community grief altar in December of 2023. 

Set up near the gallery’s administration offices, the mirror-covered box was strewn with branches and dried flowers, and decorated with black tassels and phrases written in small mirrored tile—including “love survives,” “just beyond,” and the piece’s title, “GOOD GRIEF.” There were also paper and pens, and gallery visitors were prompted to write down “the name of a person, place, moment, or version of yourself you are grieving” and incorporate their note into the altar. (People could also submit contributions online.)

Without first truly grieving the violence, the injustice, the loss, it is difficult to connect to an authentic empathy.

On the winter solstice, Christmas hosted a gathering where all community contributions were read aloud. Following that event, the altar was dismantled, and the paper participants had written on was pulped. The pulp was destined to be made into Pacific Northwest pollinator seed paper and planted on the roof of the art gallery, where loved ones’ names will be embedded within flowers feeding the city’s bees. 

“People grieved world conflict, lost persons, parents aging, changes in personal dynamics, or the loss of a house in a fire,” Christmas told me over the phone. “People brought names, drawings, music, movement, gifts, forgiveness, and even laughter.”

“Relating to grief this way can teach us to be friendly with our emotions,” said Christmas. “To understand them not as an intrusion, but as a communication. Allowing ourselves to go through the process of grieving can give us the medicine of attention, slowness, witness, care, action, and of processing the loss of what was and will never be again. Grief unprocessed, though, can be weaponized.”

Looking around at our divided, traumatized world, I can certainly see evidence of unprocessed grief being weaponized. When we have feelings of grief over life’s inevitable losses—of our loved ones, portions of our dreams, our expectations, our images of self and others—and these are not processed, this pain can be turned against ourselves and others. I could see this in myself, as my grief over the violence in Gaza and its justification by mainstream Canadian Jewish institutions turned again and again into anger.

Grieving the loss of illusions

For author Waite, grief was complicated by needing to process not only her husband’s death, but the death of who she had believed he was. Yet as she grieved that loss, she told me she was able to find that “compassion and joy is behind the grief.”

“I realized that sometimes our grief is interwoven with the fact that our loved ones actually embodied a part of our own potential,” she said. “It’s like we lived in them, and they lived in us, and they modeled something that’s actually inside us and made it accessible to us. When they die, the part of us that they held is severed from the being that lit it up, and that leaves us hurt, disoriented, weakened.” Waite discovered that she needed to find a way to reconnect to the part of herself that her husband had empowered.

Christmas agrees that “grieving archetypes and models of what one thought the world is—and of who we thought the people that we love are—is very often part of the grieving process.” Listening to Waite’s and Christmas’ wise words, I realized that this was part of my journey too. 

I had a moment of insight and catharsis talking to a friend who was born in Hong Kong and has no personal connection to the Israel/Palestine conflict—though her several Jewish friends have been filling her ear about the impacts it is having on them. She did me the favour of asking me gentle questions and listening patiently to my answers. In the light of our two-person community, I found the answer to the puzzle of my own grief’s intensity. 

I realized that as a child surrounded by Holocaust survivors, I had a sense of overwhelming horror that there were people who would tear apart the lives of innocents and children, and who could not be reached by any moral argument or plea, or inspired to recognize the humanity of their victims. On some level, I came to see the Jews I knew as amalgamated into an archetype, a symbol, a living protest against that horror. That opposition to inhumanity was the deep meaning of Jewishness to me. 

Looking around at our divided, traumatized world, I can certainly see evidence of unprocessed grief
being weaponized.

In recent years, I have come to understand the unjust behavior of Israel towards Palestinians, and the unwillingness of many in mainstream Jewish communities to confront it. My internal Jewish archetype collapsed, which added to the grief I feel at Palestinian suffering.

From talking to my friend, I came to understand that I needed to grieve my loss of this archetype. I noticed that as I made room for this grief, my rage softened. I was able to accept the fact that despite the Holocaust, Jews are—of course—as liable to cruelty and dehumanizing others as any other type of person. No group of humans is free of the dark potential that inhabits our species. Salvation, if it comes, will come in grieving this and then moving on to embrace all human beings in solidarity. It will come in working together in the dangerous garden of civilization to make spaces of peace. 

This realization did nothing to address my grief that there are currently Palestinians eating grass because Israel won’t let aid trucks enter Gaza, nor end my wish that the Jewish community resist Israeli violence against Palestinians in any form. It did soften my rage, though, at those of my fellow Jews who are participating in or justifying Israeli human rights abuses, and my grief at the discovery that Jews play no special part in saving the world after all. It turns out that all of us have a role to play. In the end, this is good news.

Loss is an inescapable part of life—loss of people, homes, relationships, beliefs. By grieving those losses together, we can find space for a renewed empathy, understand the ways that we live inside and through each other, free ourselves up for action, and start beating our swords into plowshares.

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