Meir Charash
Ride Through

Sitting and walking through grief

Mourning my dear son Ariel z”l on his fifth azkara twice within a month (the Hebrew date of his death was November 20th while tomorrow, December 17th, is the day that is seared in my memory) is just another example of the painful complexity of losing him to suicide. At the ceremony that my wife and I organized on the Hebrew date, I spoke about Ariel’s struggle to cope with a noisy brain due to OCD-related anxiety and depression; about the significance of Mitzpe Ariel (an observation point in Armon HaNatziv that enables people to spend time together in a tranquil communal setting); and about my own grief process and decision to live life and “ride through”. So many people — family, friends, and the Facebook community, have demonstrated an incredible amount of support, care and love during these past five years. I “ride through” with a village, and I don’t take this for granted. When I look back at the time since Ariel z”l ended his life, I am filled with sorrow, but also an infinite amount of gratitude.

The loss of my son has been pulverizing, but made even more difficult by the way society relates to loss, and especially to suicide. I believe we need to change our approach to grief as reflected in our use of language that too often attempts to soften or “fix” loss –loss that cannot be softened or fixed.

In Jewish tradition, a mourner sits for seven days after the loss of a family member and the community is commanded to provide comfort by visiting – what is termed making a shiva call. During the shiva, the mourner is supposed to sit in silence, and be in touch with his/her pain. Yet, all too often well-meaning people, instead of staying in the moment, prefer to focus on the future – a future with less pain and sorrow.

‘You should know no more sorrow,’ is a phrase that I often used when writing a condolence letter or making a shiva call. I fully understand that this is not such a terrible thing to wish for! In fact, it is quite a beautiful sentiment. Visitors/friends want to protect and comfort the mourner. Shiva is all about providing comfort and this is how comfort has been interpreted in many instances: reducing pain, creating distractions by engaging in multiple, simultaneous conversations (noise), and serving an endless amount of food.

Traditional Judaism suggests something wholly (holy) different. The visitor is summoned to sit quietly until the mourner speaks, and then to relate only to what the mourner is saying. In other words, to show up, be present and to be at the mourner’s side. The purpose of shiva is to be in touch with pain, loss, and sorrow – not to avoid or deny it. As Megan Devine writes in It’s Okay Not to Be Okay, society does not understand or allow for painful grief. Many people are afraid of pain and, therefore, prefer to reduce and numb it in a myriad of ways. That’s why during the past five years some people, all undoubtedly with the best of intentions, have told me to “hang in there”, ““be strong,” “let go”, that “God will provide comfort,” and that they “participate in my pain.” (Since I feel strongly that no one can fully participate in my pain, I have started using the expression, ‘I am sorry for your loss,’ when comforting someone who has lost a loved one.)

These well-meaning attempts at encouragement have not provided me with solace or comfort. Imploring me to feel a certain way or telling me what I should do in order to feel less pain has created angst – not comfort. While I have decided not to be paralyzed by pain the past five years, nor wallow in it, I have also refused to hide from or ignore the pain of losing my son. I have learned how to cope and to live fully, often with unbridled joy. I cope with anguish and guilt, but have learned, over time, to be less angry at myself and less angry with Ariel z”l.

When I first wrote about being angry at myself and Ariel z”l, friends, again with the best of intentions, insisted that Ariel z”l and I had done our best under the worst of circumstances (Ariel z”l struggling with his anxieties and depression, and me with an utter sense of helplessness, about how to best help him), and that I should be gentler with him and myself. I told my friends that instead of telling me what I should do or how I should feel, instead of judging and/or “fixing” me, what I really needed was to be heard, held, and hugged. Or, if you will, what traditional Judaism prescribes during the shiva – for friends to show up and sit at my side in silence. Only then, when I have the strength to ride through, can I follow yet another powerful Jewish tradition – to take a walk around the block at the end of shiva. This walk is a powerful statement about choosing life over death, joy over perpetual sadness – and is a movement from mourning to living. It is a decision to re-enter life despite the gaping hole in one’s heart.

This process cannot be rushed. I, for one, first need to sit shiva so I can fully engage with my pain and profound loss. I will then determinedly walk around the block – but, at my pace. I need my friends and community in this process to be at my side as I move from the quiet, contemplative mode of sitting to the physical movement of walking. For me, this is what real comfort is all about – knowing that I am not alone in the grieving process.
I still have a long walk ahead of me and could certainly use the company along the way. I invite you to join me as I continue to ride through this journey of pain and joy, sadness and happiness all mixed together. I cannot define the meaning and significance of comfort for others, but being at my side is the best way to comfort me.

So, while observing the Hebrew date of my son’s death as opposed to the Gregorian one is still very hard for me, the profound insights of Jewish tradition about the grief process, how people should relate to a mourner, and the purpose of the shiva resonate deeply within.

Sit with me silently when I need to sit. Walk with me at my pace when I decide to walk. This is what is comforting –to me.

May Ariel’s z”l memory be a blessing

יהי זכרו ברוך

About the Author
Meir Charash, originally from Fair Lawn New Jersey, made Aliyah to Israel 44 years ago. In 1979, Meir acquired a B.S. in Business Management, majoring in organizational management, from Boston University and a MSW in 1984 in Group and Community Work from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work (WSSW) at Yeshiva University. Meir worked as a community worker in Beit Shemesh and in Jerusalem, was the Director of the Israel Office of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia for 19 years providing fiduciary oversight to donor funds and facilitating Israel – Diaspora relations. Meir’s expertise is in the area of community building, fundraising and organizational behavior. In addition to supervising Wurzweiler social students, Meir worked as Faculty Advisor and Coordinator of the Israel Block Program from 2010 to 2017. Meir is married with three children and resides in Armon HaNatziv, Jerusalem. He is a certified fitness trainer, Thai massage therapist and an avid mountain bike rider having participated for nine years in the Alyn Charity Bike Ride for the Children of the Alyn Rehabilitation Hospital and in two races, the “Epic,” and “Sovev Arava”. Meir served in the armored forces for a year and a half and 15 years in reserve duty.
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