On death and dying (Part II)

As a follow-up to Part I which dealt with the shared experiences in grief, I have been “dying” to complete Part II which, in essence, deals with less casual and more authentic remarks.

Recently, I attended a lecture at the Tel-Aviv Cultural Center which dealt with the works of one man, an American Reform rabbi, regarded as the prime authority on dealing with death, dying and grief.

Earl Grollman has written and published twelve internationally acclaimed books on the subject and now, at the age of 93 he is working on the publication of his next book. I hope he will live to complete it.

Grollman has spent more than forty years of his life as a renowned scholar on a subject that too few readers have knowledge and who look to his books as the answer to most of their questions.

Beginning with his first published book by Beacon Press,TALKING ABOUT DEATH, the editors kept demanding more from him. The first book was a wide sell-out success and it was succeeded by LIVING WITH LOSS, HEALING WITH HOPE to be followed by LIVING WHEN A YOUNG FRIEND COMMITS SUICIDE; WHEN SOMEONE YOU LOVE HAS ALZHEIMER’S;  LIVING WHEN A LOVED ONE HAS DIED; BEREAVED CHILDREN AND TEENS; EXPLAINING DEATH TO YOUNG CHILDREN; CARING AND COPING WHEN YOUR LOVED ONE IS SERIOUSLY ILL; HOW TO COPE WHEN LOSING SOMEONE YOU LOVE; STRAIGHT TALK ABOUT DEATH FOR TEENAGERS;  and  SUICIDE: PREVENTION,INTERVENTION,POSTVENTION.

At age 93, he is still a frequent guest on American national television and is widely respected internationally.

At the lecture someone asked the question of the speaker, a renowned psychiatrist and a professor of grief therapy at Tel-Aviv University: “if you had to select only one of Grollman’s books, which one would it be?” She paused for a moment, scratched her head and with a wide smile that brought laughter to the audience  she replied: “Good question. All of them. Which one would you choose?”

I’m glad she did not ask me. I had read EXPLAINING DEATH TO YOUNG CHILDREN and TALKING ABOUT DEATH. The two books I need to obtain, read, agree or disagree are LIVING WITH LOSS, HEALING WITH HOPE and LIVING WHEN A LOVED ONE HAS DIED. The latter book title approximates HOW TO COPE WHEN LOSING SOMEONE YOU LOVE.

Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) summed it up for me. “asot sefarim harbai ain kaitz v’lahag harbai y’naat basar”… of making many books there is no end and too much study is a wearness of the flesh.

In the third chapter of his book he reminds us that “there is a time to be born and a time to die”, insisting that the two most important events in a man’s existence are birth and death, both of which are beyond man’s control. He continues to remind us that there is a time to weep and a time to mourn to be followed by a time to laugh.

In his philosophical words I see clearly that following the death of a loved one we are obligated to weep and to mourn. But how can we possibly be obligated to inject laughter into our veins?

At the end of the lecture I approached the psychiatrist and asked for a personal meeting with her in her office at Tel-Aviv University. She graciously offered me meet me two days later and we sat while I talked and she listened.

Finally, she told me that my feelings were not those of a recluse, not someone who has shut himself completely off from others, but rather a bereaved husband who finds difficulty in accepting the death of his beloved wife. Interestingly, she suggested that it would be better for me to limit my social contacts with two or three friends who have suffered similar loss rather than joining larger groups in community centers or synagogues led by trained social workers.

I had told her that prior to Rahel’s death she made me promise never to remarry. I had never any intention of doing so. She was the first and only great love in my life. There could be no other. This remark only enforced her suggestion to limit my social contacts to a small personal group of two or three where we could discuss together our intimate feelings and receive and give support to one another.

Grollman can write books and Koheleth can preach but for me none of these wise words have been effective. Two years since the death of my wife has not ended my weeping nor my mourning. Laughter evades me. I dream only of the day when I can join my beloved and lie beside her in the cold grave which covers us.

Every individual deals with dying and ultimately with death on a purely personal relationship with the deceased. There is not and cannot ever be a universal manner in overcoming grief and loss.

I reject Koheleth’s comment that death is better than life, composed based upon the grievous evils he saw in the world. More important are God’s words to Israel: “Choose good that you may live”.

Arabs and Muslims rejoice at death. Jews mourn and grieve severely during the first seven days (shiva) following the death of a mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, husband and wife. For these eight we grieve intensely following the initial period of thirty days after death (shloshim) and eleven months of continued mourning.

Dying and ultimately death are parts of our lives over which we have no control. When the required period of mourning ends and we return to our work we are told by our rabbis to put aside grief and to embrace joy.

It may be good for some. But not good for me. Not all of Grollman’s scholarly books nor the wise words of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) will change me.  Not now and not ever !

Another Pesach is approaching. An empty chair stands alone at the table.  Ma nishtanah?  How is this night different from all other nights?

For me it is not and never can be.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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