Michelle Friedman, MD
COVID-19 and the Challenge of Spending Pesach Alone
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended many of our lives and required us to distance ourselves from family and friends. This comes right upon Pesach, a time when typically we gather with friends and family to celebrate freedom, eat, discuss and give thanks right in our own homes. Maybe you were planning to travel or to get together locally with folks dear to you. Almost all of these plans are cabashed this year. And for people who will be on their own, this is an especially daunting situation, as we are in a year when Pesach is a 3 day yom tov.
Please know that you are not alone experiencing significant stress, feeling waves of anxiety about the general uncertainty of this time and specifically the potential loneliness in the upcoming chag.
You may also feel other painful feelings, such as anger and frustration that you have been a good person and a good Jew and it is so unfair that you are alone and not in a serious relationship now when you really need a partner. You might feel so angry that you are thinking about chucking the whole holiday and binge watching TV or just staying in bed.
I’d like to make a few suggestions:
1. Most importantly, do not try to avoid or judge whatever you are feeling. The more we avoid anxiety, fear, shame or whatever the emotion, the scarier it becomes. The more we feel shame that we aren’t in a place we hope we would be at this point in life (with a committed life partner, with kids), the more we suffer.. This is the time when we need to take a PAUSE and reflect about what just happened that led to this anxious feeling.
2. Now that you’ve taken a pause, IDENTIFY what you are feeling. Ask yourself, “What makes me the most upset?” Be curious about what made you uncomfortable. Think of this wave of anxiety as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and whether there was another feeling behind that first feeling. I’ll use anxiety as an example. Some common emotions that can make us anxious are:
a. Disappointment. These last few weeks have been filled with many, many disappointments and loss. For example, you may automatically think, “Why is this happening to me?” Try not to personalize this loss as punishment for something you did wrong, but rather allow yourself to feel the sadness that comes with this loss. Reach out to a friend who will empathize and not judge your sadness. Talk about your plan for your Yom Tov.
b. Anticipation anxiety. Anticipation anxiety is the anxiety that we feel prior to whatever it is that we fear. You might be really anxious about what it will be like being with yourself for the seder. The more you plan for your seder – choosing a Hagadah that you like, making a simple meal, setting a nice table -the more in control you are likely to feel. However small the routine, it is important. You are an adult who can pull this together.
3. CHECK your thinking. Ask yourself, “What am I worried will happen?” When we are stressed it’s sometimes hard to think clearly and our brains can jump to assumptions. Check to see if you are thinking in all-or-nothing terms such as “everyone,” “no one, “always,” “never.” Are you thinking of the extremes, like the worst case scenario? ( I will always be alone ,this is my fate, etc) If so, see if you can find a more helpful and middle ground using facts that you know. Pay attention to “always” and “never” words and challenge them. Do you know the future? No! You only know what’s going on right now. Make an active choice to use words that are nuanced and allow for future opportunity. Words like “sometimes,” “possibly,” “some people” are usually more accurate at describing situations. Try and describe what you are feeling using these less extreme words.
4. LEARN from what you are feeling now and as you go through Yom Tov. Take note of who and/or what in your life you are worrying about. Often we worry about those who are important and meaningful to us. Notice that you have them in your life and how much you care about them. We also worry a lot about ourselves – we tend to ruminate and regret. Notice when you slip into regret and rumination and think of those states as a kind of bondage, a servitude to old habits of mind that you want to release yourself from. Think of where else you feel your freedom is limited – what does Yitziat Mitzrayim mean to you this year? Perhaps you might journal a bit before the holiday and then after. Keep a written journal as we approach the chag and hold on to your mental notes so you can jot them down Saturday night or Sunday.
5. Set up a schedule- assign yourself a “seder” for davening/meditation/ reading/Haggadah reading. Allow yourself to be creative, even playful. Plan to meet up with friends using social distance guidelines to discuss your seder experience.
6. CREATE a phrase or a mantra that you can repeat to yourself to provide comfort. This phrase should resonate with you and soothe you. Some phrases that others have used include, “I am not alone”, “This too shall pass”, “I have overcome worse” or “This will only make me stronger”. Phrases might resonate with the holiday “ this is my Yitziat Mitzrayim” or “this is the birth of a new freedom for me.” Some find it helpful to write the phrase on a piece of paper and to carry it with them.
7. REMIND yourself that emotions come and go. This wave of anxiety, disappointment, uncertainty of faith, anger or whatever else you are feeling is like a wave in the ocean- it may be stronger than others, but like every other wave, this feeling will pass. Finally, we respect that you know yourself best. We understand that some people have mental health conditions that make a solo 3 day yom tov dangerous to their health. If this is you, please speak to your halachic advisor and to your psychiatrist/psychologist/therapist and get their advice in making decisions that keep you safe and well.
Wishing you a joyous Pesach!
Michelle Friedman MD
YCT Rabbinical School, Pastoral Counseling
P.S. You might find these videos helpful. I did these with kehillot in Montreal. I talk about keeping Pesach simple and about expressing gratitude to the heroes who keep the buses, pharmacies, food stores, garbage collection running, reaching out to people who are alone and will be alone on Pesach, etc.
Session for Parents: