Who among us is not familiar with the faith-filled words of Job who, in the midst of crushing despair and loss, utters the famous line, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away; blessed be the Name of the Lord?”
Every Rabbi has intoned those words at funerals and gravesides and, at least in Western faiths, the same affirmation can be heard. Much like the 23rd Psalm, these words of Job have become part of the universal arsenal of farewells. It takes a certain strength of faith to stand at a grave of a loved one and to articulate that phrase, to acknowledge that life and death are two sides of the same coin. The coffin rests, is suspended in air on its bier, and below there is an eternity of finality, separation and grief. To begin with, why do we bury our loved ones? Get beyond the rabbinic law and focus on the primitive and ancient premise that just as seeds planted will eventually grow, so we hope that our dear ones will sprout again.
Our Orthodox cousins call this M’khayye matim, a core principle of faith that asserts that our departed will be resurrected upon the arrival of the Messiah. Instead of oblivion, we will receive the gift of seeing them again. Even King David, while mourning his son Avshalom, almost off-handedly says, “I will go to him; he will not return to me,” as though the King will be reunited in some amorphous way with his son. Someone once called this “temporal finality.”
Once shiva, sh’loshim and the passage of time move emotions from heartache to gratitude (and thus memory DOES become blessing), a life may be placed into some beneficent perspective. In my experience, there is only one piece of this very human and universal narrative that lingers beyond normative healing.
If there was great suffering at the close of life, the issue of fairness raises its head. How unjust is it to watch a dear one decline and then, more than that, know that they are in pain? Participating in this rite de passage can suck the marrow from your bones. Look: we all know that there is a point, an indefinite point but a point nonetheless, when life stops giving and starts taking, but why the loss of dignity, serenity and laughter replaced by fear, uncertainty and discomfort? Is this the work of a just and kind God? Some bright light said that God never imposes on us more than we can handle.
I think they were blowing smoke in someone’s ear. I think that’s a cheap excuse and far beneath our “little lower than the angels” status. It leads us into feeling relief when our loved one dies and we console ourselves with the notion that they are now situated in a place where any agonies cannot touch them. We mouth the words that their very passing was a blessing. This turns on its head the idea that life is supposed to be the blessing piece and death – either easy and quick or glacially agonizing – is the tax we pay for the privilege of drawing breath, of loving, succeeding, hating, failing, inventing and re-inventing the direction of our days.
There is a surfeit of emotional pathology in living and even more in dying. Unfortunately, this is a minefield that is rarely entered. Mores the pity because a discussion of these inevitable and inexorable circumstances gives rise to a broader appreciation for the time we are allotted. There are no consummate conclusions from colloquies like this.
There is only a more nuanced appreciation for the idea that the Lord gives and the Lord takes – blessed be the Name of the Lord.