5776 will forever be for me the year that I was surrounded by death: in early November my 66-year-old beloved father suddenly collapsed into a coma from which he never recovered, in May one of my dearest friends lost her precious 10-year-old son Yoav to a chronic mysterious illness that saw him in and out of hospital rooms for bulk of his short life, and in June my 93-year-old grandmother, who had a slow and painful decline, finally took her last breath. For the past 11 months I have lived in a cycle of death- shared, comforted, and held by a community of friends, colleagues, and family.
How am I, you ask? I am not OK. Thank you for asking.
As I wrestle through my grief, one thing that I have been able to let go of is the seemingly inherent need to tell people I am OK when I most certainly am not. Fresh, raw, real deep grief gives you that freedom.
The beginning of the grieving process is always the worst. You feel like you are living in a fuzzy nightmare and praying that you will soon awaken and everything will be just as it was. Your loved one is really just only in the next room or will answer the phone when you call and the reality of their passing will all just be one horrible dream.
But soon you realize, it is no dream, this is your- MY- new reality. I will never see my father or hear his voice ever again. That is when the grief flows in. And as the grief flows in -through the funeral, the shiva week, and shloshim (30-day period), the flow continues for a while until it turns into an ebb and flow and eventually, just an ebb. Now, 11 months since losing my father, it is very clear to me that the ebb of grief doesn’t ever truly go away. It is always there, lurking under the surface, ready to appear at any unexpected occasion. It could be a conversation, a piece of art, or even a familiar scent that can trigger a reminder that your loved one is gone forever that will bring on a full blown wave of fresh grief. Forever is an awfully long time.
Right before Passover this past year, my friend who has lost both her parents warned me, “just be ready, first holidays are the worst.” And yes, Passover was pretty bad, even from the get go when I broke down in my local kosher market while trying to tackle my extensive Passover shopping list. My father loved grocery stores and especially holiday shopping and often went Passover shopping with me. He always made sure that we had his special Passover products, including kosher for Passover Sweet-N-Low and Schick Bakery’s “lace cookies.” On the way out of the store, I ran into a congregant who asked how if I was OK and enjoying preparing for the holiday. I paused for a minute before responding: “No, I am not OK.” The poor woman looked bewildered that I didn’t just mutter a pleasant response and move on, but at that moment I had to speak my truth. When you spend a year of your life wrestling with death and every phase and wave of grief that comes with it, the need for unnecessary and phony pleasantries somehow seems to magically fade away.
After a while it became clear to me that while the grief would never truly go away, if I wanted to continue to live my life as a productive human being, I would need to view this experience as a lengthy transformative wrestling match, similar to the story in Genesis 32 of Jacob wrestling with the angel. When Jacob emerges from this strange, murky, wrestling match with a stranger in the dark of night, his opponent gives him a new name that reflects this experience: Yisrael-Israel, “because you have struggled with G!d and people, and you have prevailed.” From here on in, Jacob-Israel is never the same.
The holy struggle has transformed him and even more meaningful: it is the struggle itself that names the transformation.
This Yom Kippur marks 11 months since I began my struggle/wrestle with a stranger named grief. I have finished my 11 months of Kaddish and in a few days will say the yizkor-memorial prayer at Yom Kippur services amongst fellow grief journeyers at my congregation. I know that these 11 months have changed me and I know that this year, more than any other year, the Yom Kippur liturgy filled with imagery of life and death will take on a new realistic expression and meaning inside my head. Threats and warnings about death and not being written in the Book of Life are no longer simply allegorical words in the High Holiday prayers of the machzor (High Holiday prayer book), those words now reflect the transformational struggle that only comes from the reality of facing death while in the midst of living your own life.
I still do not know how I will emerge from this journey, as the rawness of my father’s passing is still at the forefront of my psyche. I still struggle with the reality of attempting to navigate my life without my father’s physical presence here on earth. Every day is a step towards my new transformed reality.
Death is the great leveler and death is the great unknown, but death also allows for a unique experience of ultimate transformation for the living that can only come from an intimate knowledge of loss. While the fresh raw feelings of loss very much still linger, here I am, hineni, poised to travel on this journey of transformation that will continue to emerge as I continue to wrestle with this stranger named death.
In Memory of:
HaRav Yisrael Zev Ben Esther
Yoav Ze’ev Ben Yael
Esther Bat Chaya Menucha
May their memories continue to serve as the blessings that they already were/are in our lives.