Snapshots: Mostly Jewish

We're not likely to get that short
(1)    Looking up  

The other day we were standing in stocking feet and I asked FD, “Am I getting shorter?  And what happens when do you get shorter? Do you lose weight?”

He faced me and said, with certainty, his head inches from mine,
“Yes, you are getting shorter. We all get shorter.” 
He didn’t respond to the weight question.

And I noticed, as he said this, that he had lost some height, and that my chin didn’t point up as high as usual as we spoke, and our eyes weren’t level, but they were almost level.

It was alarmingly intimate.

(2)   Holidays and guilt  
FD waking me up with the shofar

It has happened many times. I’ll be listening to a patient who will suddenly look directly at me, across that perfectly calculated space between us, and declare:
“It’s Catholic guilt. The problem is Catholic guilt.”
There will be a pregnant pause, then a bold continuation:
“You Jews have it too, I think. The guilt.” 
And I confirm this. It is true, for many of us. Guilt is a code that we live by.*(1)

About this time of year I print up a little piece of paper and hand it out at the end of visits.

Here's a list of dates for Jewish holidays coming up. I won't be working or returning calls on these days,*(2) but will get back to you asap. Understand it could be a few days before you get a return call..
Think of this as a yoga retreat for me, out in a desert, far away, but intermittently hopping on a plane, a proverbially late plane, and coming home to work between asanas.
Use the emergency contact if necessary.
Okay, I left out the line about the yoga retreat and the asanas.
Just some of the Jewish holidays

The retreat for Jews, those who sign up, begins in the first Hebrew month of the lunar year, Tishre (rhymes with wish-day). Rosh Hashana. The holiday will be here with the setting of the sun on September 13, a two-day affair, cuz we're Jews.

Then, ten days later, it will be Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement/Judgement), then Succot (why not build a new home in the backyard) four days after that, culminating with a wild celebration (for the most part alcohol free) Hoshana RabaSimchat Torah, not shown on the calendar above. It goes on and on, or certainly feels that way, and can be quite serious, sobering, which is why many observant Jewish doctors are nowhere to be found on the holidays, except for FD. They seem to find him. 

Even as he's being paged, we're like kids on Christmas, on our best behavior, worried about the King's decisions for our future, no idea how it will all turn out.

What's interesting to me is that there's real anticipatory anxiety going on. Heavenward attention (fear) starts well before Tishre, the month of judgement. Even in the last month of the year, the one we're finishing up just now, Elul, we think that God is listening, a little closer, like at weddings (She attends! Go ahead, ask for it!). The sound of the shofar, the ram's horn, is heard at daily morning services in Elul, loud, insistent, sometimes whiney--plaintive, a plea for mercy. Or a plea for return. Or both.

Some people begin to get nervous mid-July, even before Elul, in the month of Av. As soon as the summer heats up they start examining how they are living their lives and what they should be doing better, differently. It can put a damper on your summer, honestly, examining your deficits.

Emotions are a roller coaster until court is adjourned late in the evening on Yom Kippur, ten days after Rosh Hashana (although the gates remain open, really, until the end of Simchas Torah, and naturally, we're judged every day, in the moment, not for the past so much, as a general rule). But on Yom Kippur the future of every city, tree, insect, person, animal, turtle, lizard, flower, giraffe, and fish is determined. The fast greases a positive verdict.

We'll say, if someone dies just before the new year,
God of mercy, the Old Mighty gave her the whole year
Or when something tragic happens, any time of the year
 It was decided on Yom Kippur
This is an answer, see, to the big question of Jewish guilt, and even the big Why questions. The answer might come down to (1) not praying hard enough, (2) withholding charity, and (3) not making it happen, that promise the year before to very specifically change our behavior, or worse, having no intention to do so. Everybody has to chip in, the stakes for the entire world ride on it.

So you get it, Jewish guilt.  I have no idea what subscribers to other religions have to complain about.*(2)

(3)     Yahrtzeit  

Holidays aren't the only annual interventions. 

When the anniversary of a death is anticipated, families have different ways of handling what can be a healing, if emotional experience.

Some make calls, check out feelings of sadness, empathize and commiserate. There are plans to meet at the cemetery, drop off a flower, or share memories on WhatsApp or a private Facebook group page (others are very public about it). Or there's a picnic. I had a photo shrine pic ready for a previous draft of this post but took it down because FD said Internet stalkers might bother my mother in Heaven. My cousin has pictures of her mom all over her apartment. Sometimes I wonder if our fathers are jealous.

We go to the effort of socializing on or around an anniversary, because we remember, or maybe we forget, but want to connect with other people who remember. Or maybe we just like being with others who care, who still grieve a little, that time of year.*(3)

And it has been said in many a doctor's office, a therapist-type doctor, while tracing emotional cycling, that the anniversaries of deaths are associated with a spike in negative emotion, sadness especially, maybe even depression. The change might begin months before the anniversary. I told one friend who gave me plenty of notice about a dinner invitation that I'd need a rain-check, wouldn't be in the mood. Too close to the yahrtzeit.

The yahrtzeit, for Jews, marks the day a parent, child, or sibling died. We might keep a yahrtzeit for grandparents or aunts and uncles, or other special people, too, but it isn't technically ours. Again, the date of the anniversary is as it lands on the lunar calendar, which varies year to year on the Gregorian calendar (the one most of us keep, January, Feb, etc.) It can be confusing because even Jewish types don't use the lunar calendar much, except to check on the proper time to light the Sabbath and holiday candles.

So we're never really sure when the yahrtzeit will be unless we check that or use a phone app. Or we can wait for a postcard from the synagogue,
Remember so and so, whose yahrtzeit is on such and such a day 
 Most are not so crass to ask for the check, but it might be implied. It is also an invitation, really, to stop by to say kaddish, the special remembrance prayer.

But for many of us, knowing when it will be is too important to wait for the shul's notice. When one of us figures out the date we'll inform the rest of the family.
September 3 is Mom's yahrtzeit; let's do dinner that week.
Or maybe we'll get more specific,
This year, mom's yahrtzeit, the 19th of Elul, will be on Thursday, September 3
Figuring out when will it be can trigger strong emotion, that's the beginning of the anticipatory anxiety I'm talking about. Maybe our brains are reenacting the stressful times attached to the death itself, or the anticipation of the death itself. I randomly remembered, two days after a yahrtzeit, when someone mentioned going to the ER at St. Francis, how I threw myself on my mother, as the paramedics hauled her in on a gurney at the beginning of what was to be the end and said, in answer to her question, "You're not going to die."

So the yahrtzeit is grief work, reliving a trauma, and the experience feels a little like acute stress disorder.

It all makes sense when we're in the moment, when someone is dying, when a death is imminent, inevitable, and comes to pass. Elisabeth Kubler Ross famously noted five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For that emotional resolution to continue annually, however, years after someone's passing, tells us everything about how we're made. *(4)
We might forget where we put our keys, may have no idea what we're looking for when we walk into a room, cannot remember who we saw yesterday, but we're wired to remember the important things.*(5)

*(1) If you are too young to know the Crosby Stills and Nash song, Teach Your Children Well, here's a link.

*(2)  Probably all religious codes are the same, capitalize on fear, assuming that within that code is tucked the concept of divine retribution. That tickles our most primal fear, the fear of annihilation.

Which Darwinists believe is burned into our DNA, and mental health professionals insist is a product of parental behavior (the rod), instruction (talks at night before bed, rewarded with hot milk and cookies), and institutional hypnosis (Hebrew school).

Jung's concept of a collective memory explains why all of us, at certain times of the year, are programmed to feel certain ways. Americans just feel like lighting up the barbecue on July 4th to make fireworks with that lighter fluid, consciously or subconsciously looking skyward for the rockets red glare, ala 1776. Groups remember even ancient history, like the Jews remember God holding a mountain over our heads, making us an offer (the Torah) that we can't refuse. Memories are passed on in some still inexplicable way. Gotta love Jung for this one.

Therapists might say that the emotional programming of the Jewish high holidays is necessary because most of the year we're sleepwalking.

And there's this comforting feeling, too, when the season fades away,when everyone anticipates getting back to work without interruption the second week in October this year. We turn, not only to friends and family, but to our Maker, and say,
Same time next year 
 We hope in Jerusalem, if at all possible.

*(3) The crazy thing, should you do this, pass along the memories with one another, discuss feelings about the relationship you had with a person long gone, is that it affords an opportunity to work out some guilt, or neurotic misgivings, legitimate regrets, too, even anger. My brother, at dinner on Sunday, told me that he felt guilty for one thing only, not taking Mom out to dinner more often. And I told him, that after two years, I'm working through some of mine for not confiding more, not telling her the things that might have made us closer, and not listening to her often enough, because I knew she always craved more intimacy with me. If you don't do this, don't have the dinner, don't do anything that brings a loved one to life once again, it is your own loss, imho, and experience.

*(4) I'm told it improves as the years roll on, the intensity of grief work. That's what I tell people.

*(5) The important things, unfortunately, would include traumas, and for that, everyone needs therapy. For the things parents teach us, the things that stick, no matter how many days pass, we might need therapy, too.


Anonymous said…

What does it say about me that I get annoyed over the fact you have not updated your links in over 6 years?

Please advise and L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem!
therapydoc said…
Oh, then there's that. When I started blogging I was much more into the social network. I'd like to get back to it, spend time on the nuts and bolts of the blog, eliminate the old ones, add some new. Please email me corrections, suggestions, new links. Not sure what it says about'cha, not judging in any case. That would depend upon a lot of different variables that I don't know about. Shana tova, a happy, healthy year, to you, too!

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