Grieving Alone

man in black shirt and gray denim pants sitting on gray padded bench
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In my 35 years as a rabbi there is much that has changed, some good and some disappointing, and at least one that leaves me scratching my head. 35 years ago, funerals were rarely described as “private” or “at the convenience of the family.” A family held a seudat havraah (meal of consolation) in their homes immediately after the funeral. No one asked to do it in the synagogue. While very few families in the Reform movement observed the full seven days of shiva, the vast majority observed three. Yahrtzeits were seen as obligatory times to attend services, even when people never did so at other times during the year. That, too, is no longer the case.

What’s changed? Let me highlight with my own father’s death, now 22 years ago. My father had lived with a number of chronic health issues for years, not necessarily debilitating, but definitely affecting his quality of life. There were more challenging issues from time to time. I got the phone call on a Saturday night that he was going to the hospital for pneumonia. I live about three hours away and my brothers live near my parents. I was told not to come in. He would be in for a few days and he would be fine. I still got in the car the next morning to see him. Expecting that what I heard was the truth, I didn’t bring a toothbrush or a change of clothes. I planned to do the trip in a day. His hospital stay that would come to include intubation, a coma, and death, ended up lasting three weeks. I made a number of trips back and forth during that time. I did a lot of grieving, even rehearsing the eulogy I would deliver in my mind. I greeted people who came to visit. Some brought comfort, some were strangers, and some came out of guilt to assuage their consciences. The days dragged and the weeks were exhausting.

When my Dad died, the funeral was a major event. He had been active in his congregation and community, my mother and my brothers all had friends and connections, and my friends, no one living in that community any longer, and members of my congregation came to offer comfort and support. Because the people who came for me specifically were all from out of town, there was no one there for me beyond that first day. I spent time making small talk with my childhood dentist, a man who was friendly with my father during their working years but with whom there was no contact in a decade, and the random people who came and went. In short, shiva was a chore and not a comfort. While I wouldn’t have wanted to go right back to work and my routine, the old ways were simply not helpful. Of course, I’m only speaking for myself. I suspect, although can’t confirm, that it was different for the rest of the family.

The prolonged illness and the grieving I was doing while my father was alive, the distance from my home, and the sometimes meaningless conversations with people who were well intended but didn’t fully grasp what they needed to do to provide comfort were exhausting. That says so much about Jewish life in America today. We don’t live in our small, self-contained communities, medical science can keep the mechanisms of the body functioning longer, even, in some cases, when it’s already evident that the soul is gone, and friends and family no longer know what’s expected, and the people showing up for shiva with all the best intentions may be completely unknown to the mourners.

When my mother-in-law died this past year, we announced that the funeral would be private, the seudat havraah was for immediate family only, and we did one night of shiva.

I should say that I have always been most liberal as a rabbi when dealing with grieving families. I value the wisdom of our tradition, but this is never a one-size-fits-all process. The question becomes, is there a way to honor the old ways and still provide families with what they need, or is it time for us to fully claim our reform-ness and develop new rituals? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, how do we renew the old and sanctify the new? In asking us to do an exercise in reform-ness, it might seem odd that I suggest returning to one of our legal codes from the Middle Ages, namely the Shulchan Aruch. There it says,

Those who have come to comfort the mourners are not permitted to speak until the mourner speaks first . . . and as soon as the mourner nods his head in a manner from which it is indicative that he dismisses the comforters, they are not permitted to remain seated by him.

This formula is actually pretty simple. If you’re not the mourner, it’s not about you! Once you speak, I suggest two things to say:

1) “I know you, but I never knew your loved one. If it’s OK with you, please tell me about them. I would like to know.” (Then just sit there and listen!)

2) “I was honored to know your loved one. Would it be OK if I tell you a memory I have of them?” If the mourner asks you a question, even wondering where you found comfort in your own grief, answer. If not, remember rule #1 — It’s not about you!

We must sanctify the very act of story-telling.

What else can we offer? As a rabbi, the funeral liturgy really doesn’t change much. I will often say that the liturgy links us to our people across time and space, and some find comfort in that. I believe we need to emphasize that. But then it’s the eulogy that frames the individual for us. It lets us share memories—maybe laughing, maybe crying, maybe letting out an expletive or two. Maybe acknowledging that the deceased was difficult, maybe even abusive. (The great wisdom of the editors of Mishkan Ha-Nefesh, the Machzor of the Reform movement, was to include a reading about difficult relationships.)

What about a community response? We honor the wishes of the mourners. Even if they want something private, you can send a note of condolence as a friend, relative, neighbor, or fellow congregant. Let them know you’re available, but be specific in offering. Check back, but do it by text or email. Let the mourners know that it’s OK to not answer and you won’t think of it as rude. “Can I bring a meal? Can I help you get your kids somewhere? Do you need your house cleaned?” It’s all about the power of the word, Hineini, the Biblical and post-Biblical equivalent, not just of “I’m here,” but, to quote the song, “Put me in coach. I’m ready.” Of course, memorial donations are always appreciated.

Can we envision something completely new? If funerals are private, can we create an opportunity for collective story telling? Can we build that around Yizkor, at least on Yom Kippur, if not at Sh’mini Atzeret, the end of Pesach, and Shavuot? What other ideas can we generate? There is a need and an opportunity as we face the mandates of new realities. What hasn’t changed, as we learn in the Talmud, is that “The gates of tears are never closed” as they open towards heaven. We must make sure they remain open in our congregations as well.

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