How a Grief Alarm Kept Me in Order

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Last February, in that weird interregnum after coronavirus had become a hazy, abstract worry and before the first cases broke in the U.S., my father died. It had been long expected and, to the extent that anybody can be ready, my dad had been ready. Ahead of the end, he had written a will that read like Chaucer and fashioned some serious funeral plans.

With the makings of a cosmic dad joke, both a rabbi and a Zen Buddhist monk held court at his graveside ceremony in Queens. It was a cold Thursday morning and we couldn’t have known that it’d be the last time many of us would convene in a group for at least a year.

There’s a lot to say about the shock of a sudden death. There’s less in the canon, however, about a slow and steady decline. I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of the moment and didn’t have much of a playbook. Much in the way that my dad had clouded his Jewish practice with lightweight Buddhism, my observance had drifted in the equally cliche direction of bacon cheeseburgers.

But with a surprising new weight of continuity upon me, I set a daily alarm on my phone that would keep me fixed to the grieving process in a way that most other observances had slipped. I picked 9:15 A.M., for no good reason other than it seemed like the time I generally finish my morning routine (news, social media, email) and start my workday (news, social media, email).

I labeled the alarm Kaddish, for Judaism’s 800-year-old ritual mourning prayer, recited daily in Aramaic by the bereaved for a year following the death of a parent. In the beginning, my plans were to devote a few quiet minutes to him, maybe write something down or mine an old email for fresh pathos. Then I would say the Kaddish and start my day.

Of course, the early days of grief are memorable. You’re encased and stupefied by it. But as normalcy crept into my everyday, the world around me became very surreal. Coronavirus had appeared and now everyone was deprived of understanding. Suddenly, basic supplies were running short, financial markets were crashing, and the internet was suggesting that we wash our fruits and vegetables with dish soap. Tens of thousands of people were getting sick and dying and millions were losing their jobs and health insurance.

As the sound of sirens became a fixture in urban centers, I found myself doing the classic work of the helpless, but comfortable: I evaded. Stayed busy. You can always fill empty spaces with distraction. Walks could be filled with podcasts. Nights could be filled with Netflix binges. There was always more work to do. Through the mourning months, I spent an unreasonable time on air fryer-themed Reddit threads, tried (and failed disastrously) to get into trail running, and even moonlighted as a census enumerator. I also turned my focus to long-held plans like getting engaged and buying my first home. But every morning at 9:15, I had to reckon.

The grief alarm became a ready-made coping mechanism for the news of the world, which grew more grim by the day. By sitting with it, even just for a few minutes, I could counteract the sense that I was pretending that the death and despair didn’t exist. With enough consistency, I began to see that this ritual was allowing me to move forward each day.

In a different year, I have to believe I would have sought out ways to make his absence meaningful — retracing some of his foreign steps, dining out at his favorite haunts, seeing some of the art he liked, tweeting crankily at the Morning Joe account. Anything, basically, except for trail running and regimented grieving. But this is the year we got. All of us.

With a year of mourning now wrapped up and the collective anniversary of the pandemic in the U.S. here, I’m ambivalent about turning off the alert. I’m not sure what the sages would say about tech-assisted grief or mourning beyond the proscribed timelines, but it doesn’t feel right to give it up just yet. The truth is that it’s kept me in order.

I hadn’t planned to create a life hack out of a mourning ritual. But my grief alarm was that bracing reminder that I was living in an irregular and painful time, both locally and globally. It helped, but also, my small vaguely Jewish ritual had also become a little bit Buddhist. I imagine my dad would have liked that.

Journalist. Author of Drive-Thru Dreams. The Atlantic alum. Work in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Texas Monthly, and elsewhere.