Tammuz: Being with Grief
Rabbi Rachel Cowan
Tammuz, the fourth month of the Hebrew year, is known as the saddest month. The fast of the 17th of Tammuz commemorates five terrible events in Jewish history, and launches a three week period of mourning that culminates in the fast day of Tisha b’Av, intense grieving for the destruction of the First and Second Temples.
As we reflect on the collective and individual grief of the Jewish people over thousands of years, encapsulated in the 17th of Tammuz, or of the suffering of black people in the years of enslavement, or of our own losses, we may tend to make grief abstract. To distance ourselves from it. But grieving is a powerful, difficult, necessary and redemptive experience. To release ourselves from its grip, we need to turn into it, to feel the pain, to acknowledge the loss, to accept it. Then we can move on—neither losing the love for those who are gone, nor dimming our love of the life that remains for us.
Aldous Huxley wrote about the experience of grieving his wife’s death in a letter he wrote six months after the death of his first wife, Maria:
“There seems to be no remedy except to learn somehow not to identify oneself with the pains and losses one has to suffer, the bewilderments and darknesses one has to go through—to accept them realistically as things that happen, but not to permit oneself to be equated with them, not to forget that they do not constitute the entire universe and that we are capable, even in disaster, of being impartially aware of all the other, non-disastrous aspects of the world.”
In the book of Deuteronomy (30:19) we are told to “choose life.” That is what Huxley is saying as well. Mindfulness meditation gives us a helpful practice for doing what sounds easier to say than to do:
We can sit quietly, with our eyes gently closed, or opened and focused softly before us. We begin by bringing our attention to our body and noticing the variety of sensations that arise.
When a feeling of sadness, or fear, or anger arises, we attend to the place in our body where we feel it—to the actual sensation of the emotion. It may feel like a stab from a knife, or a knot, or a dizziness.
We can notice that the sensation waxes and wanes—pulsing strong, then relaxing. It is rising in us, but it is not us. “I am feeling sadness” is different from “I am sad.”
We can then focus our attention on the flow of breath in and out of our bodies, alert to each time our thoughts carry us away into the future or the past.
After a while, we can bring to mind a phrase, such as “May I feel peaceful” or “may I hold myself with compassion.”
Then we can sit with the phrase, breathing with it. Or we might say, “I breathe in pain, I breathe out love.” Focusing on the phrases often brings feelings of gentle compassion into our body, opening space for light to enter our darkness.
We create space for gratitude for all we had and for what we do have to flower.