Dear B’nai Shalom members, families, and friends:
Having only recently concluded the final holiday celebrations of the many festivals found in the Hebrew month of Tishrei, we now find ourselves in the longest stretch of non-holiday time on the entire Jewish calendar.
I will therefore take the opportunity to reflect on a subject that was brought to the surface on the holiday of Shmini Atzeret, during the Yizkor service. That Is the all-encompassing and often badly misunderstood subject of death and dying — within a Jewish perspective, and also on a much more universal basis.
There tends not to be a subject more painful, awkward, or misunderstood that that of death and dying. People whose families are suddenly faced with the death of a loved one, are rarely prepared for such a loss. Even when people say that they are mentally ready, it is generally a cognitive state of preparation and not emotional. In other words, they may say they are ready for the imminent death but it is not truly internalized; they don’t believe it. There is little or nothing in this world that brings out pain and sorrow as does the realization that a loved one no longer exists. There is heartbreak in knowing that he or she will never be seen or heard from again. All that would have pleased the loved one, or all that should have been said is now eternally muted. It is the permanence of death that is so utterly frightening. The brunt of the realization that the deceased is forever out of reach is what brings on the uncontrollable tears of grief.
In deaths of tragic proportion, the feeling of despair and helplessness is even more intense. The surviving family members are completely enveloped in a specter of black gloom. It is often difficult for those family members and friends to even discuss the diseased without renewed sobbing and wailing. The mourners may find it impossible to picture life going on normally without the deceased. That person occupied such a position of love and prominence that the world of the mourners is completely shattered. After the passage of time, the pain may diminish for some, while for others, it will completely disappear. At the time of the death and soon thereafter, this will not seem possible to the mourners.
There is one type of death whose pain is never extinguished. The anguish of losing a child appears to be a torture that never recedes with time. The rabbis tell us that the loss of a child is a punishment of suffering so overpowering in degree and magnitude that it is un-eclipsed by any other stirring known to mankind. Psychologist explain this emotional nadir as the failure of one generation to see its successive generation’s offspring survive and flourish. They attribute part of the parents’ grief to the lost road of immortality by having lost the linking seed to the future. Common experience understands and feels it more simply: a loving parent devotes years of his/her being to raise a child. He/she sees the child actually brought into the world and from then on, that new addition is an everlasting part of him/her. While growing up, the child provides the parents with the most cherished and loving memories that could ever be indelibly etched upon the parents’ memory. From good times to bad, from sadness to simchas, in teaching and in playtime, the parents invest their whole being to the welfare of that child. There is absolutely nothing in this world that the parents would not do for their offspring. To see the child’s life snuffed out before them is to recollect all the stored memories of the child and view it all for naught. The child is no longer. The love given to the child throughout the years has lost its reciprocity. The parent has ultimately lost a part of himself/herself, and just asaA missing limb’s absence is forever felt, so too, is the loss of a child with its eternal agony.
The only positive note through all of this is religion. Those who cling to their religion have an advantage over atheists. And Jews have an advantage over non-Jews in handling death. As difficult as it is for ALL people to calmly accept the passing of a loved one, Jews have a set, structured procedure for mourning and expressing grief. While religion officially fills the function of how to approach the Deity, psychologists agree that the Jewish religion fills an important human need in coping with, and venting grief.
The seven-day shiva period as a two-fold purpose: it is a religious ritual, satisfying the Torah’s command, and an instrument of comfort to the mourners. It becomes imperative for the friends of the bereaved family to visit and console and look after the needs of the mourners who are too pre-occupied to take care of themselves. Often people avoid a shiva house, not because they are adverse to it, but because of their own feelings of inadequacy while there. While this perception may be a concern, and in reality, quite valid, one must look for whose benefit the shiva exists. The mourners are the ones in dire need of companionship and consolation whether they know it or not. The visitors approaching the mourners tend not to know what to say. Generally, there really is nothing appropriate to say. (To tell them that it was “for the best” is inane and unfeeling. To wish them “better times in the future” has the right motivation but might be an empty wish when the mourners cannot picture “better times” without the deceased.) There is nothing wrong with remaining silent and just allowing your presence to be felt and noted. In fact, Jewish tradition holds that visitors do not speak until the mourner addresses them first. This would prevent discussions of over-sensitivity and discomfort, levity, or irrelevance, by permitting the mourner to set the tone and parameters of the conversation.
This is a very awkward time for the visitors. They may feel that anything they say is not going to bring real comfort to the mourners. Remaining silent can be even more awkward but this will avoid emptily babbling on and on just to strike up talk. The mourner will gain strength, if not comfort, simply by being surrounded by friends who care. While the pain may not be alleviated immediately, the mourners do appreciate the show of kindness and consideration by the visitors. The friends of the family must never forget that the purpose of the visitation is to show solidarity with the mourner. The friends must never allow themselves to wallow in self-pity, unable to cope with the grief of the family. The mourners are the people with the emotional setback — so even clumsy consolation is no excuse for avoiding what is a Jew’s duty.
We are taught in Judaism not to fear death for death is a part of the ongoing lifecycle. This is easy to teach, learn, and discuss, as long as it does not apply to us. But, somehow, the stronger our faith is in life, the easier it will be to cope with death.
There is one other thing that death teaches us. We must look around us and be grateful for all the good we have, while we have it. We must never permit ourselves to dwell on our own misfortunes, for by looking to somebody who has real tragedy, we see how trivial our own problems really are. We must be appreciative of all the good we have, and every day say: “Thank G-d“.
Wishing you all Torah blessings always,
Rabbi Dr. Yaacov Dvorin