Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Emotions are Real: A Perspective on Grieving the loss of a loved one

Yizkor Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement Memorial Service

Aaron, the brother of Moses, had just lost his two sons, Nadav and Abihu. The Torah tells us in the book of Leviticus that God sent a strange fire and took them both out for apparently not following directions set out by God in the Torah for making sacrificial offerings. Aaron’s response was; “Vayidom Aaron,” And Aaron remained silent.” What did that mean? What does silence mean as compared to weeping or as other biblical patriarchs did which was to cry, throw dirt upon them and tear their garments? Yet with Aaron, the high priest, it was silence. It feels unusual. The reaction is not typical of how most people react to the death not just of children but towards any loved one. Yet this is the situation of Aaron and it feels like a mystery to us because we don’t know what is beneath the surface. His silence almost invites us to ask questions about what he was really feeling. Surely there is a connection for us to see that reacting to grief varies and we all struggle with different means to accept the loss of a loved one.
I think there are many occasions when people exhibit emotional reactions that leave us perplexed as they mourn a loved one. Sometimes it is silence and other times it is a non-stop mourning that goes beyond Judaism’s 11 month initial period of mourning. Everyone mourns differently and we should resist making too many judgments about someone else’s way of mourning and determining what is appropriate and inappropriate. All that is really important is that the mourners are truthful with themselves and the issues they are facing as a result of losing their loved ones.
I remember a man who lost his teenage son to cancer. Joshua was his name and the father used to take his chair out to the cemetery and read or sit there and talk to the grave as if he was speaking to his son. People in the community used to comment to me about how strange that appeared to them after the first year. He continued to visit his son’s grave for some time afterwards. We all use different ways to cope in the short run and the long run with the death of a child or a loved one.
There is so much that life can teach us about handling our careers, parental roles, our financial responsibilities, and so on. But what course do we take and what books do we read and what tv reality show do we watch that will instruct us how to mourn the loss of a loved one? What college or university teaches how people can mourn their loved ones? The truth is that none of these are either appropriate or enough for us to expect to learn how to mourn and how to cope with long term grief.
Judaism has an  established a  process of one year  for mourning starting with the laws and rituals that guide us from the moment we hear of the loved one’s death to the washing of the body in a ritual specific way to the final interment. Judaism gives us the 7 days of shiva and asks us to take time out and get our bearings and receive the comfort of the community. Thirty days or shloshim comes next from the time commencing with the interment. Then the unveiling and the obligation to recite mourner’s kaddish for a loved one each day for 11 months. Mitzvot such as giving tzedakah in their memory, starting programs in the memory of the loved one or getting involved in the causes that they loved or the causes that were responsible for their deaths is also typical. People tell me all these things help.
The challenge is a deeper one which is confronting the long term journey to live without their presence.  All of us understand what I mean when a grief-stricken spouse says’ life just does not feel the same since he or she passed.’ We understand the internal meaning when a senior adult confides; “my friends are all passing. Who is left?’ We know what it means to experience multiple emotions like anger, frustration, comfort and release in one setting and feel exhausted afterwards.
How did Abraham react internally when he had to bury Sarah? He purchased a cave called Mahpelah in the ancient city of Hebron to give her a proper resting place. Jacob made sure that Rachel was buried and provided her with a separate tomb from the rest of the Patriarchs and matriarchs buried in the Cave of Mahpelah. And it was God who laid Moses down to rest and with a kiss let him enter life eternal on the plains of Moab burying him in a place where no one would ever know.  Still the Torah is quiet about exposing emotions. The children of Israel cried when Moses died. But we do not usually get a sense of the internal emotions at work inside the matriarchs or patriarchs.
Nevertheless, Judaism provides us with a framework to cope. It offers us a year of ritual and structure to transition. Beyond that we have the opportunity to remember, as we are doing right now in worship, three times a year at the festivals and particularly at Yom Kippur. Yet there is a difference between what all the rituals in the world can do, and we should not underestimate their efficacy, to the internal resources we all must summon up inside ourselves. The strength to grieve and mourn long term is not about suppressing emotions inside ourselves. It is not about lashing out at the world even when we want to do so and feel justified in doing so. It is not about exhibiting anger at everyone who we believe or imagine could have or should have done more for us or our loved ones. The strength is about seeing inside ourselves where the real needs are and recognizing how to address those secret emotions rather than let them become toxic to us and others.
Silence is not a bad thing. Crying and screaming is not bad either if we know when to exhaust those emotions and move on to living life.  Silence does not means being stoic and unfeeling just as emoting does not mean being out of one’s mind. When we are trying to comfort friends and family who are struggling with the loss of a loved one then one of the important values is trust that the mourner will display the emotions they are most comfortable using to deal with the death of a loved one.
And all we can pray to god for them is that they are truthful with themselves. Grieving a loved one in the short or long term means that mourners face hard truths.  Some of those truths are about emotions such as loss and loneliness and our need for security and identity. Some of those emotions are about frustrations. They are all real issues.  The challenge is to understand the emotions we are experiencing. And the same challenge for us who comfort mourners is to respect those emotions. 
May God comfort you amongst the remnants of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. May our loved ones be remembered for blessing.

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