As I enter my 16th month of aveilut, I feel like I am driving through a tunnel and still have not passed the line on the wall that says I am closer to the exit than the entrance. Let’s face it — being morbid goes with the territory
No one has ever been able to disprove Benjamin Franklin’s over-quoted statement that “in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Yes, it is inevitable that we will die, some peacefully and others struggling to their last breath. We mourn the passing of loved ones and express our grief in accord with Jewish custom. We also console each other in the hope of honoring the memory of the person who has died and offering emotional support to the grieving person. There is a back and forth between the mourners and the lost ones. Thinking about this, I want to consider my parents, my friends, and a cousin and try to put this into perspective.
My parents had a long full life together. They were inextricably bound to one another and shared just about everything. They were Mendel and Betty. They experienced joy and sadness, great grandchildren and smachot but also the painful loss of a daughter. Watching them over the last decade of their lives, I thought they had been granted a full allotment of years and had made the most of the time they had been given. I consider myself lucky to have known them for 66 years. I got every measure of love and nurturing and support from each of them.
In contrast, during the last two months, my community has been devastated by the sudden passing of two extraordinary members, both around the age of 70. The deaths were totally unexpected. One man was the picture of good health, still competitive in sports, robust, politically engaged, a mainstay of communities here and in Israel, a gentle but brilliant force to be reckoned with. The other struggled with a long-standing but mysterious, unnamed illness. In the face of complications and pain, he greeted everyone with a smiling countenance, the embodiment of the advice in Pirkei Avot. He was very funny and very smart, the skit writer par excellence for shul dinners. He was always poised and ready to share a joke or a page of Gemara. These men were everyone’s friends, two people who were noach la’briyot. Finally, a 70-year cousin of mine died suddenly during Sukkot. My fondest memory of him was coming to Kew Garden Hills for his bar mitzvah and thinking what an amazing job he had done, anxious about whether I could match him. Although I understood that he had psychiatric problems, I was unaware of the difficulties that he confronted during his life. But I learned that he had been embraced by a neighborhood shul that gently created a safe haven for him. My cousin appreciated the opportunities they gave him to be a shaliach tzibbur, something that he was good at and relished doing. He expected to be able to continue daven for the community for many more years.
Thinking about all this, I suggest that you can visualize death and mourning as a bidirectional chemical reaction governed by the law of mass action. As my father taught all those desperate high school students who came to him to be rescued from the torment of 11th grade chemistry, the law of mass action is like a seesaw. It states that the direction of a reversible reaction is driven forward by the side that has the larger amount of the reactant(s).
For the purpose of this essay, the two sides of the reaction are the one who is lost and those who survive the loss. There are two elements on the side of the person who died. There is sadness for the loss of potential meaningful living, deeds not done, A. There is also the weakening that inevitably accompanies old age, the fear of being cast aside, al tashlicheinu l’ayt ziknah, B. On the side of the people left behind there are also two elements. There is the unexpected rupture of the connection with a person who was an integral part of family and community, C. In addition, there is loss of shared experiences and memories accumulated over a long life together D.
A + B <———————–> C + D
The person who died The people who survive the loss
The unique mixture of these elements on each side of the reaction when a loved one dies will create an imbalance between the reactants on the two sides of the equation, weigh the figurative seesaw down, and shift the reaction in one direction or the other. Importantly, one direction may be dominant, but the reverse reaction is never completely eliminated.
My parents shifted the balance to the sadness that comes with the weakening of loved ones, witnessing the decline that comes with long life. They grappled with their own fragility My father’s mobility declined as he aged. My mother experienced progressive dementia and gradually lost the features that made her a unique person. She could not bake, she could not knit, she could not visit the sick and shut-ins, she could not sit on the couch and just chat. I feel the absence of my parents but know it would be ungrateful to have asked for more. In contrast, the unexpected death of our friends and my cousin spared them any diminution in their power. Their loved ones can remember them as vibrant people, still at near peak power. But it also triggers an intense feeling in the relatives that they leave that there should have been more time to live, more time to give. The survivors are forced to confront the fleeting nature of their lives.
Mourning is a tenuous balance of all of these elements, the complex human reaction of living and dying. There is a perennial discussion of a good death. I will leave that conversation to others. No matter what, death is permanent. The empty space of a parent, partner, sibling, child, or friend who has died can never be filled. But maybe there is a good survival. For those who lose a parent after a long life, there can be the commitment to make sure that the values of the deceased endure, and that the gifts they gave us are not forgotten. For those who lose a loved one suddenly and before their time, maintaining the integrity of the family unit that they created together with the one who has died is the challenge. Counteracting the centrifugal forces of grief that can develop in the absence of the gravitational pull of the ones who have died is the most powerful affirmation of the lives mourners will continue to live going forward.