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In Joy, Gratitude and Grief: This is 33

Today is my 33rd Birthday.

I love my birthday. I anticipate it for several months and, even if the celebration is less exciting than the anticipation (which usually happens), it still feels like a “big deal.” I’ve never been secretive about my age. I don’t fret about “getting old” or about being the youngest in a room. Birthdays, for me, are about feeling at home with myself. It’s a landmark in my year, when I can bookmark a chapter of my life and reflect.

My life right now is lived in numbers. Today is the 36th day of the Omer. We’ve been living with social distancing for 63 days. It has been 229 days since my son Ronen (z”l) died.

(To all of these numbers, I challenge you not to reply flippantly, “But who is counting?” I’ve heard it too many times in the last seven months. I am. Sometimes counting is the only way we create order in an otherwise chaotic world. When someone tells you they’re counting up or down to an event, listen to the message they’re telling you about how excited they are; how sad they are; how they are just trying to march through and remember that each day that feels the same is different simply because it’s at a greater distance from the time of the event they’re tracking.)

Today I am 33 years old.

A year ago, everything was different and yet, somehow much the same. A year ago, I had two children running around my house, snuggling in the mornings, making jokes, singing songs, playing games. This is still true, but they’re a year older and a year spunkier. I was pregnant with the little boy (I didn’t know that at the time) who would change my life and burrow in my heart forever. We were living in a different house. In some ways, it seems like we had our stint with Ronen and then life went “Back to Normal.” Of course, we weren’t in isolation then; no one could have seen that one coming.

I want to say that I’m filled with gratitude today, and I am, although my gratitude level rising has its counter-weight now that makes it just a bit harder. I’m grateful for my health, for my twins*. I’m grateful for our family -- my parents, siblings, and in-laws, who all in their way support us even if at a distance. I’m grateful that I have an amazing an supportive partner in life, my husband Bob, who has taken the majority share of parenting to enable me to put the majority of my energy into work and taking care of others. I am grateful that Bob also sometimes reminds me that amid taking care of everyone else, coming home and taking care of kids and business, I need to remember to take care of myself.

* Here’s the nuance: It is hard for me to say I’m grateful for “my children,” since one is missing. I tip my hand here so that you know — I’m grateful when you ask, as I’m sure you routinely do, “How are your children doing?” but it’s always hard for me to answer. If you’ve asked me this, you’ve probably heard me reply, “My twins are fine,” or “The children in my home are [whatever].” I’m certain that no one wants to hear, “Two are fine and one is dead,” but if I’m being really honest that’s always what pops into my mind first when I’m asked this question that probably feels rote when you ask it. On balance, if you're talking to me, I’d simply suggest asking how I am (if you want to know), or, if you want, ask how is my family. In general, you might reconsider asking the diminishingly rote “How are you?” and skip to what you want to talk about or, better, reconsider asking “How are you?” rotely and ask it with intention and space for someone to really answer you.

I’m grateful we live and work in a community which has been awe-inspiring, supportive without overstepping, caring, collaborative, and invested in my family. I’m grateful that Bob has found friends here, that D & J have the love and support of so many teachers and adults who love them and who model what it means to be good humans -- even if by Zoom.

I’m grateful for the professionals who help me take steps toward becoming the best version of myself: my grief counselor, my voice teacher, my piano teacher. My mentors who still accept my calls when I need a consult. I’m grateful for my work colleagues who share the load when it comes to supporting out, but also create the space I need when I need to focus inward.

I’m grateful for my regular and episodic study partners, and for all those who have learned with me in memory of Ronen. I’m sorry I haven’t shared publicly more of #RonensTorah lately, but it’s surreal that I’m only one week away from finishing the books of Nevi’im/Prophets. I’m grateful for those of you who have checked in with me at whatever point in the journey this last year has brought me, through a complicated pregnancy and birth process, 39 days in the NICU at Children’s National Hospital, and the getting back on our feet in the 229 days since. Time flies: only four days from now would have been the 39-week mark, where we could have been celebrating Ronen’s equal time out than in.

Another lifetime. Every day of this pandemic-imposed isolation I am reminded that we could have been living a completely different life. I dream about it sometimes.

Just six months ago, David Kessler published a book called Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief — and it’s everything I’ve been feeling and doing. David Kessler was co-author of On Grief and Grieving with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, originator of the Five Stages of Grief model. Kessler’s thesis is that there is a sixth stage of grief: “In this sixth stage we acknowledge that although for most of us grief will lessen in intensity over time, it will never end. But if we allow ourselves to move fully into this crucial and profound sixth stage—meaning—it will allow us to transform grief into something else, something rich and fulfilling.” I will have much more to say on this book at sometime later. (For those reading this who are involved in pastoral counseling, I highly recommend this new book. I’ve linked above to it in our local bookstore, Politics and Prose Bookstore.)

Let us be clear that the five/six stages of grief are not linear, they are a roller-coaster or a game of skeeball. Some days I’m still waffling between anger and acceptance, before I ever get to meaning. But this is the work of my life, Year 33, making meaning not only from Ronen’s death but from all of the trauma and celebration that life this year has been. Yes, it’s real work. I do continue to invite people to call me whenever to check in. I do still need those connections. It’s been 229 days, but it’s only been 7.5 months.

Despite everything, I do look forward to seeing what the coming year will bring us. May we be blessed today and every day with health, contentment, gratitude, and meaning.

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