I was 14 and choked up when I whispered the words, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” The way I interpreted it, I was speaking for my grandmother, asserting that she should not fear the afterlife for G-d would be with her. I was initially comforted by the soothing phrase; my grandmother wouldn’t have to be scared of the uncertainty that lay ahead. Besides, this phrase was familiar to me. I had mumbled the words a year earlier over a different grave.
Yet I soon felt I had wronged my grandmother. I was a hypocrite. Who was I to tell her she shouldn’t fear death when I had never experienced it myself? Who was I to try to provide the comfort of companionship when death was my greatest fear? I was angry; I had been tricked into saying something I didn’t mean. I believed my grandmother was alone in death, as sure as I was alone in life.
Ever since my family had rushed to the hospital only to arrive minutes too late, ever since my brother had caught me as I slid along the ice into the balmy lobby, ever since I had refused to kiss my grandmother’s head resting on the blue pillow because I am a coward, I had felt I was completely alone. No one else had two family members die in two years. No one else felt the same pain and regrets I was experiencing. The words I whispered on that frigid January day only cemented my belief of solitude. Not only was I alone in life, but I was going to be alone in death.
The rabbi told all non-family members to form a path. My parents, siblings, aunts and uncles all tread through. Finally, I entered. All the people at the funeral, at least eight forming each side of the path, were here to support my family. My dad’s coworkers stood with their hands clasped tightly in front of them; my mom’s friends gave my siblings and me sympathetic looks as we passed. But the only thing that mattered to me in that moment was that all those people forming the path were at the funeral of a woman some of them had never even met. All the people there made sure that on the day when sinking to the deepest depths of depression and isolation would have been easiest for me and my family, that we were not alone. Later, when I sat squished in the back of our car with my siblings, exiting the cemetery, I saw their damp faces and I knew I would never be alone in my pain.
I have come to realize that the phrase I whispered as my grandmother was presumably walking through the valley of the shadow of death does not mean, “Do not fear death for G-d is with you,” but rather, “Do not fear death, for I am with you.” Whether or not there is a G-d above, I will forever love my grandmother, and my relatives here with me will forever love me. I am never alone, for I have my family, my friends, and those who will form my path as I walk through the luminous peaks of life.