Dealing With Catastrophic Loss

To be effective in the pulpit rabbinate requires that one possess (or develop) an eclectic and demanding set of skills. You have to be knowledgeable in Torah, a master of synagogue skills, a good teacher, a good speaker, a good counselor, and of course it doesn’t hurt to be young and charismatic…

But nothing that one is either born with or studies to learn in school can adequately prepare a rabbi for the inevitable tragedies that he/she will surely encounter in the course of a rabbinic career. There are, as I’ve previously written, many sad occasions over which a rabbi is called to preside. Death is rarely a time of celebration. But not every death is tragic- not at all. It is in the scheme of things that we all will die eventually, at what we hope will be an age sufficiently advanced that we will feel blessed and fulfilled.

But we know all too well that it doesn’t always work that way. There are those instances where the death of a person, particularly a younger person, is so egregiously before its time, and seemingly senseless, that it just renders us all breathless with grief and dismay. It is at precisely at those moments that a rabbi is called to do his/her most important work.

When most people would rather be anywhere other than with with a grieving family overwhelmed with loss, that’s when rabbis are needed to bring order to the chaos, and a palpable feeling of caring that reminds those grieving that they are not alone, and will be helped through their darkest moments. Not least of all, the rabbi is also expected to frame the loss in some way that at least begins to restore a sense of meaning and orderliness to a world that has seemingly spun out of control.

There is no way to overstate the importance of this work, nor is it possible to exaggerate the degree to which, in both the short and long term, it takes its toll on the rabbi and other clergy involved. If the rabbi doesn’t know the person who has died or the family left behind, it is more a professional challenge than a personal one. To be sure, it hurts to be witness to the sadness. But the total effect is not as personally devastating.

But when the person who has died is a friend, or family, or someone whom the rabbi has known over many years, then the grief that afflicts the surviving family and friends also envelopes the rabbi, and the work is that much more trying. Being relied on to function as a source of strength and meaning for those whose grief is unbearable is arguably the most important work that a rabbi does. It is also the most debilitating.

Last Sunday, I participated in a memorial service for a friend and former congregant who had died while hiking in the cold on Mt. Rainier in Washington State. He was in perfect health, vibrant, enthusiastic, cheerful- and an experienced hiker. He simply had some free time before his plane from Seattle would leave to return him to his loving wife and family back east in New Rochelle, but something went terribly wrong. He was overcome by the cold, and he died.

I could write an entire article about this remarkable young man whose name was Brian Grobois — Dr. Brian Grobois, a psychiatrist — but that is not my purpose here. It is, rather, to understand more deeply the phenomenology of dealing with a loss that is totally unexpected and completely inexplicable. I had officiated many years ago at Brian’s wedding— his lovely wife Susan asked me to speak at this memorial— and it was both an honor, and a difficult and painful experience. What does one say? I myself was feeling overwhelmed with grief, but that had to be secondary to my rabbinic role, as I explained earlier. Most difficult was trying to frame the seeming senselessness of Brian’s death in a way that expressed my inability to justify or rationalize it, but still be within the context of a faith that was supple enough to absorb this terrible blow.

Here is a brief excerpt from what I wrote:

“The daunting challenge before us is to somehow use words to proclaim in the metaphorically loudest possible voice our anguish and sense of loss. One wants to scream, to rail against the unfairness of this awful reality with which we are confronted. But that will not help us in any real way to appreciate the magnitude of our loss…

It is a deeply embedded feature of the human condition to seek reasons for things that happen to us and around us, whether for better or for worse. We long to know why things happen, in the hope that by understanding, we might gain comfort, and a greater sense of security. The Torah itself promises great reward to those who are faithful to the covenant with God, and the opposite to those who are not. But I have long maintained that if the ancient rabbis really believed that the world worked that way, the book of Job would never have made it into the biblical canon. Long before we moderns brought our own existential angst to the subject, they understood the conundrum of tzaddik v’ra lo, rasha v’tov lo ; the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. The world, as we know painfully well, is a far more complex place than our human condition would want us to be able to believe. If olam hazeh (this world) was such a fair and equitable place, chazal (our ancient rabbis, of blessed memory) would not have invested so much time in thinking about olam habbah (the world to come)…

On this painful morning, I will, in full honesty, share with you my resistance, both personal and professional, to trying to understand what has happened. I will not pretend to know why Brian was taken from his family, his community, and his friends, with so much life left to live. I cannot, no matter how hard I might try, arrive at any understanding of this great loss that is adequate to explain or justify the suffering that it has generated, particularly for Susan, Marshal, Julie and Lauren. There is no theology that I can hold on to that can explain it away, and if there were, I wouldn’t be able to subscribe to it.

But what I can and do believe is that there is more in this world- God’s world- that I don’t understand than that I do. And that is surely true of God as well. I believe in mystery. I believe that the things that matter the most to us in life, and in death, are often beyond our understanding, no matter how much science and technology have brought us to new frontiers of knowledge and discovery. We don’t know, and we never will, why one person dies while another lives, why one child gets sick while another remains healthy… Hanistarot, lHashem Elokeinu, v’haniglot, lanu ulvaneinu ad olam… the hidden things are God’s; the revealed things are for us and for our descendants in perpetuity.

I choose not to even try to understand why Brian was taken from us, when and how he was. It is, to me, in the category of the aforementioned nistarot. It is a hidden thing. But to believe in God is to believe in mystery, to acknowledge the unknowable, and to surrender, ultimately, to its power. The only other choice we have is to turn away from God, and to have known Brian is to know that that would be the very last thing that he would have wanted to happen. Brian was a man of great faith. He grew in his passion for Judaism as he got older, and the more religious he became, the sweeter and more serene he was. I can believe in Brian’s God, and acknowledge the possibility of such great tragedy within His world. And not only can I believe in that- I may even be able to find solace there as well…”

Even after 30 years, I live in dread of the phone call that will bring me news of this kind of loss, and there are many that are even worse. But when all is said and done, it is of little use to try and quantify which loss is greater, or what hurts the most. All loss is painful, and losing someone with so much life left to live is, like I said last Sunday, like a spiritual concussion. It completely disrupts our sense of emotional and spiritual balance, and renders temporarily inoperative all those indicators we use to gage reality. The rabbi has a vital role to play when things are at their worst.

Like I said, it is the most important work that rabbis do… and it exacts the greatest toll.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.