The World Shrinks

There are certain “set pieces,” or repetitive scripts that become a part of every Rabbi’s life. This comes under the heading of REALLY telling tales out of school. Each of us clergy-people brings a certain formula into play when confronted by different cycle of life circumstances.

KendallRabbiJonathanFor instance, most of my pre-marital interviews are identical. The answers are different, as distinct as each couple (although after 40 years, I hate to admit that most future brides and grooms fall into two categories: those who look as though they’ll survive and those on whom I would sadly bet the family farm that within two or three years they’ll be dividing up their accumulated property and moving on), but the questions are pretty much the same. While the exigencies of life remain just that, our responses to them become predictable and unavoidable.

This is not a blasé treatment of someone’s joy or tzurris – we are not cynics – but there are parts of every one of life’s passages that are the same. Through years of experience we have come to expect incomparable happiness, tears of delight and of sorrow; guilt, recriminations, satisfaction, pride and an entire litany expressed in the subjunctive – what might have been, could have been, should have been. Encountering these powerful passions for the first time can be a daunting brush with human imperfection and variation for the novice member of the clergy. For those of us who have been in the saddle for a while, these reactions can provide wonderful opportunities for us to explain to congregants that they are entering an emotional mine field and if you are aware that the ground upon which you stand is holy but uneven, occasionally rocky, sometimes seemingly impassable and always loaded with concealed, hyper-sensitive ordnance, you provide great counsel.

You can inform people that they’re going to step on some mines; they will be painful when they improbably and unexpectedly explode, but they won’t kill you. Just knowing that they are there is often enough to ward off serious injury.

Another example is our experience with care-givers. Care-giving, we know, is an emotional roller-coaster and if the prognosis is poor, the care-giver must navigate through some pretty powerful territory that involves great expenditures of energy and feeling – and the sacrifices are seemingly endless.

We observe from the sidelines as people caring for others are slowly worn down, the marrow sucked right out of their bones. There is great nobility to caring for a loved one, but there is a price – actually, a number of prices. It is a good juncture for the Rabbi to acknowledge the hesed, the loving kindness, that is being played out and also to talk about time. Why time? Because so much of it has been consumed in the giving of care, so much of it absorbed by a routine that can be both lovely and repellant at the same instant.

Sooner – rather than later – this ultimate journey will come to a close. With that, there will be relief (which often produces misplaced guilt) and a tremendous amount of time that will be freed up. What one does with that time, how one uses that time, ultimately determines the quality of the grieving and healing processes. Providing that information in advance, I believe, is a real mitzvah.

Quite often, thanks to medical advances, we see aging parents live far beyond normal expectations. When the end is approaching, I never fail to teach two invaluable lessons. The first is that those left behind will experience sorrow but not tragedy. Death preserves a natural order that cannot be denied; postponed, by all means, but not denied. The process ought to be directed – eventually – not on what has been lost but rather, on what the mourners have had.

This is one of the mechanisms that permit memory to become blessing and when the memories are long and numerous, all the more so. But before we “shine on” the idea of intense grief over the loss of an aged parent or spouse, we ought to remember that the mourner is faced with an entirely new set of heretofore unfamiliar circumstances. The deceased has been a part of their lives (in the case of children, virtually forever) a very long time.

Even when roles are changed and the child becomes the parent, the parent is still there. We become so inured to their presence in our lives that their passing is very much like an amputation – a piece of US is missing and yet we feel its presence. It is a kindness for the Rabbi to share this perspective – along with the concept of being an orphaned adult (the title, by the way, of a very fine book by Rabbi Marc Angel, Rabbi Emeritus of Shearith Israel, the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in New York: The Orphaned Adult : Confronting the Death of a Parent). It is the prime example of the “mortality sandwich” about which Rabbi Address often speaks.

Finally, I always tell new or about-to-be widows and widowers that their world may shrink. If you have operated as a couple, shared everything, socialized with a group of other couples and pretty much were joined at the hip, there may be some serious changes on the horizon. After the crush of family and shiva callers comes to a close (and this happens much more quickly than anyone anticipates), one discovers exactly who your friends really are. There are countless widowers, for instance, who have made the surprising discovery that it was their departed wife who was at the center of their social whirl and that they were “just there.” Many “friends” may withdraw or simply disappear. And, it IS difficult to go places where you once were a couple and have now become a single.

There are no pat answers for these things, all of them measured to the contours of individual personalities and needs. But to know these things are in the offing is a blessing. The number of husbands and wives who, three months after funerals, have come back to thank me for the insights provided is legion.

Rabbis, especially where the rubber hits the road, are more than officiants. We are teachers. The shrinking world of the mourner is where we sometimes can do our best work.


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