On Grief

Categories: Community Voices

The following is the text of Rabbi Amy’s 2018 Yom Kippur sermon:

A few months ago, I was out for dinner with my book club.  At the end of the meal, along with the check, the waitress gave us a handful of wrapped sesame candies.  One of my friends said with a wistful smile, I remember these – my grandparents used to have these in a bowl in their living room.  Another of the women said, O my goodness, I remember when I visited my grandparents, they always had them too!   Another friend chimed in, How about those caramel candies- Werthers, I believe they are called.”  We were so surprised to discover we all had that in common, spending time with our grandparents, eating candy, whether it be sesame, strawberry or caramel and creating memories.

I opened my purse and pulled out a plastic baggie with 7 or 8 wrapped werthers, and said, does this make me old?”  We all laughed and enjoyed our candy and our memories.

Not long ago, we had a serious health scare within our extended family.  I was scared as I anticipated the pain I would feel if my loved one died. Later I realized the pain I was anticipating directly correlated with the incredible strength and beauty of our relationship.

This led me to think –

One of my favorite rabbis, David Wolpe explains, “The Rabbis of the Talmud teach that, unlike human beings, God loves broken vessels: those who are open enough, humble enough, to allow themselves to be cracked, hurt, and healed.”  Page 11 Wolpe

Examining our Torah and the creation of human kind, we read in Genesis, “Let us make adam – humankind – in our image, after our likeness.  And God created humankind in God’s image, male and female… and God blessed us.”

We, humans, alone are created in God’s image … This is a gift.  But … one that comes with a cost.   Along with the intelligence, emotions, understanding and the ability to remember, comes the consciousness of loss.

It can be frightening for many of us to open ourselves up to truly love and live because we are conscious of our mortality and the finite days of our loved ones.  We may anticipate the pain we would feel if we lost these individuals in our lives.  Therefore, it can be frightening to allow ourselves to experience that full measure of love and joy.

This health scare and subsequent realization occurred at the end of the spring and I decided to share my thoughts with you at that point.  Not long after, I lost my dear friend, Susan Cohen, and this sermon – on being open to meaningful relationships took on a different focus; exploring the questions;

How do we allow ourselves to be open to loving and living and subsequently, how do we help ourselves and others with the natural repercussions of these relationships – which may be loss and grief.  Permitting ourselves to be cracked, hurt and eventually we hope, healed.

On that note, I would like to remind you of a story you may have heard about the man who was wandering about lost, in a forest for several days, not knowing the way out. Finally, he saw another walking towards him.  He was so relieved, thinking he would at long last, learn the way out.  He said to the man, please tell me which way to turn. I have been lost in this forest for what feels like forever.”  The other said, “I’m so sorry, I would love to help you, but I too, am lost.  But I will tell you this, now we are not alone in this forest any longer.  Let us join hands and look for our way out together.”

I know that no one can measure or compare grief.  I lost one of my dearest friends I have ever been fortunate enough to have.  Having said that, as I speak with you this morning, I know that many of you, if not most, have lost a parent, a child, a sibling, a spouse, a partner, or another loved one and I cannot begin to know the depths of your loss, your pain.

There is a reading that Rabbi Alex and I often use when conducting a funeral and I have to give him credit, he found it and I just appropriated it as I do on occasion with his good stuff.  I have to be honest though, I thought it was a little trite.  But boy, it kept running through my head over and over as I thought of my friend.

It is titled, “The loss of a treasure.”  I invite you to think about someone you love who passed away as I share this with you.

A death has occurred and everything is changed by this event. We are painfully aware that life can never be the same, that yesterday is over, that relationships once rich have ended. But there is another way to look upon this truth. If life went on the same, without our loved one’s presence, we could only conclude that her life made no contribution, filled no space, meant nothing. The fact that our loved one left behind a place that cannot be filled is a high tribute to her. Life can be the same after a trinket has been lost, but never after the loss of a treasure.

Perhaps it is a bit trite, but is it true!  Our loss hurts when our loved one played such an important role in our lives, when they gave us so much.  Sometimes we don’t even realize how much until they are gone.

So the pain is there – as is my question for us this morning, Are we willing to truly open ourselves to the relationships in our lives and allow ourselves to be cracked, hurt and eventually, we hope, healed. And, How do we help ourselves and others when we inevitably loose one we love?

I want to thank so many of you for responding to my email asking the following questions; “What helped you as you were grieving?  “What did other people do for you that was helpful?” And “were there any specific Jewish or other rituals or experiences that gave you peace.”

Several important themes emerged from your responses.  One theme was guilt:

One congregant wrote,

“In my case, I was and and still am overwhelmed with the feeling that I could have and should have done more during the illness of my loved ones.  My mother’s dementia resulted in my placing her in a nursing home.  Couldn’t I have found a better way? … these feelings of guilt may be unreasonable but that doesn’t make them any less real.  This is a hidden emotion.  Maybe even stronger than the sense of loss and certainly one that continues on and on …”

In Deuteronomy, we read, “You are God’s children and you shall not gash yourselves on account of the dead.” (14:1) Our rabbis explain this verse. “This act, of bashing or cutting oneself, could be an act of self-punishment, expressing feelings of guilt, which are often experienced by individuals after a death.”  As the congregant quoted above so aptly described, “feelings of guilt may be unreasonable but that doesn’t make them any less real.”

While it may no longer be common for us to commit acts of physical self-destruction, many of us have experienced the mental anguish of feelings of guilt and remorse.  Why is it so common for us to have these thoughts?

When someone we care about dies, it is the end of our physical relationship with them.  If there were things we wish we had done or things we wish we had done differently, it is natural for us to feel some regret.  Whether it was thinking that we were not there for the person as much as we should have been, wishing we had handled a past situation with our loved one differently, not telling them how we felt about them, or something else left undone, unsaid … many of us are left with regrets when someone we love dies.

What can be helpful to us in this situation that seems so final, so irrevocable?

I guess Rabbi Alex has learned a lot from being with many in our congregation, because he was the one who helped me deal with these feelings.  He said to me, “you have to look at the whole relationship, you can’t just look at one or two incidents, you had a 16 year relationship, you have to look at the big picture.”  I hate to admit it, but he was so right.  Often, we focus on not having said or done the right thing at a few specific moments, or not being with our loved one when they passed, or not being able to attend the funeral for whatever reason … or something else … that plays in a loop in our minds.  These thoughts can prevent us from moving forward and obscure the big picture; the love, the wonderful memories made, all that we gave and shared during the person’s life.

When we wish we could ask the person we have loved and lost for forgiveness, we can also find help in our Jewish tradition.  While, we may yearn to ask another for forgiveness, a social worker friend of mine shared with me that the literal forgiveness of the person who passed is not the issue, rather forgiving ourselves is truly that which is helpful for moving forward.

Judaism walks with us on this difficult journey, by giving us the process of teshuvah.  Teaching us that we are able to recognize that which we did wrong, understand how we would like to act in the future, forgive ourselves, and allow this new insight to inform and to change how we act in the future.  Teshuvah enables us to take our mistakes, learn from them and move forward more healthily and more fully with our future relationships.

Another common theme that came up in many of the responses to my email was that having people around who showed their caring and their love simply by being with the mourner and really listening to them (and not talking much) was extremely helpful:

One congregant wrote:

“For me, its not so much what people did but what people did not do.  Mourners will mourn differently but in my case, I wish people would not have avoided the elephant in the room.  A friend of mine avoided talking to me at the grocery store.  Others would talk about this and that but never asked how I was doing, how I felt.  And that’s what I wanted to talk about. “

Another congregant explained:

“… family and friends supported me in many ways … sometimes a phone call was enough ..other times an invitation to go out or ask if they may visit.  The visitor, whether friend or family, does NOT need to talk.  Just being there, maybe giving me a hug or holding my hand, was helpful.  Conversation is not always helpful.  Listening is helpful. “

Last year, I was privileged to attend a Jewish spiritual weekend.  The rabbi presented us with an interesting exercise.  We were paired off and given the following assignment:  Go off in a quiet part of the room and ask your partner, “Who are you?”  For 5 minutes, really listen to that person, if something they say resonates with you, “do not say, “Oh, that same thing happened to me, or I have a child that did that same thing.”  You are just listening.  The only response you can give is to say something like, “hmm …  tell me more … I hear you.”  After 5 minutes, switch roles and the speaker becomes the listener and vice versa.  At the end of 10 minutes, we headed back to the group.  Many were emotional, some crying.  Why?  To have someone unselfishly listen to you was such an unusual experience for many, if not most, of the participants.

Why do I share this story with you?  So many of us don’t know how to help someone who is grieving, we don’t know what to do.  As the congregants quoted above shared, one of the most helpful things we can do is simply spend time with those who are grieving and listen to them, not talk, just be and listen.

In responding to my email, another theme that emerged were things that people did which they meant to be helpful but were actually quite hurtful.

One congregant wrote:

“Worst thing people did – tell me they know how I feel.  Please tell people not to do that.  When I lost my parent, I was in my twenties.  I had numerous people older than my parent who had just died tell me they just lost their parents so they knew exactly how I felt. I wanted to slap them and walk away.  I felt it attempted to trivialize and minimize my grief of losing someone before their time.”

It is so natural to say, I know how you feel.  We can find alternate ways of comforting those about whom we care.

Another theme that emerged: what helped people find comfort as they were grieving;

One congregant wrote simply:

“Often times, I found hugs were more comforting than words.”

After officiating at Susan’s funeral, I came off the bima and a friend approached me.  She put her arms around me and I could feel her sorrow for my loss and her love for me.  She didn’t say a word, nor did she need to.

“I need to cry a lot.  And it helps me to have someone there who is willing to listen to stories of the person I am grieving for.  A person who will just let me cry … and not try to stop the crying.  Most people think that the crying hurts.  They are wrong, crying helps relieve the pain.”

“The simple acts of kindness were the ones I appreciated most from friends, like asking me to meet for an hour for coffee.”

Another theme that emerged strongly was the positive impact the Jewish traditions had on many of the respondents: observing the customs associated with shiva; such as, having friends come over to comfort them, attending morning minyan with the minyaniarres, and saying the mourners prayer, mourners kaddish to name just a few.

One congregant shared:

“Attending daily minyan; allowed me to take a breath, relax, feel sad, cry, reminisce, and get my thoughts together.  For that brief period of minutes, I wasn’t responsible for anything other than saying prayers and listening to my lost loved ones voice.”

Another congregant explained,

“Shiva forced me to get up, take a shower, walk my dog and get dressed.  I was in such a fog that these simple tasks were hard.  (Although, a funny side note, is that I got so excited to see what dinner was being delivered each night!!!  )There is something to be said for the minyanaires coming over each morning and the “shots” were a bit helpful too!  This kept reminding me that I needed to move forward.”

Judaism walks with us along this painful process as our tradition recognizes and affirms our need to remember, to mourn, to cry, to have the support and companionship of others on this painful journey, and the need to continue “moving forward.”

There were many additional topics raised within the thoughtful emails I received.  We won’t be able to discuss all of them today but we will be able to continue talking about grief in greater depth as the adult education committee reached out to me to lead an upcoming lunch and learn on this topic.

For our last topic together this morning, let’s explore the way in which each of us deals with grief differently.

One congregant wrote,

“Grieving is individual.  People grieve in different ways and judging someone’s grief is inappropriate (not helpful.). The person who is grieving needs to heal just as if they were physically hurt.  .. That means asking oneself, “what do I need to heal?  It is a time to be selfish.  As an example, I was often invited out to dinner at a friend’s home.  Suddenly, after dinner, I needed to go home.  I needed to be in my own “nest”.  My friends understood.  There was no coaxing, judging or prying.  They let me go with the assurance that they were there if I needed them.”

“I think I felt helpless at many times… When I was able to realize that grief is all encompassing and so personal in how we deal with it, I could eventually work around it.  For me that meant finding ways to help myself with deliberate self-care.  Self-care was time to reflect, time to connect with family and friends, consistent exercise and taking on meaningful work and volunteering projects.”

“I, myself, find mourning very complicated.  It is a cut that heals leaving a scar in its wake.  And like a scar on the skin, heals leaving a mark that is both more sensitive to situations, and tougher at the same time.”

There is enormous pain when we lose someone we love.  But when I think of the closest people in my life, I know that I would much rather have those relationships and feel that pain than not have the incredible joy they brought and bring into my life.

During this time of year, we remember those we have loved and lost.  It may be with some sadness but it is my hope that we also remember all they added to our lives, all they gave to us, and the way these relationships brought comfort to us or clarity or compassion and changed the essence of who we are.

One final quote,

“When attending Shabbat or holiday services, it brings me comfort to wear my father’s tallis.  It is as if he is in the sanctuary with us all.”

It is my hope that, just as our congregant above so beautifully described, we are able to allow the most beautiful parts of our love and relationships to be with us, to comfort us and to influence us as we journey forward.

May we remember all that our wise and experienced fellow congregants shared with us about the ways we can help one another in the coming year; being present, being a good and quiet listener, when appropriate – giving a really good hug, and supporting our community’s minyan.

May we all be comforted by the memories our loved ones have left behind and may we work to create new memories with our loved ones today…

And let us say, Amen.



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