Yakov Saacks

The school of hard knocks: Lessons of a death



Rabbi Yakov Saacks, The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY

Last week I received news that my youngest sister suddenly passed away without any prior history of health issues or any other warning signs. She was literally alive one moment and dead the next. There were no goodbyes or I love yous, or instructions, directions, or requests. Nothing.


The funeral came and went. Then comes the shiva period, which is designed to make one grieve and reflect over the loss. Those who do not sit shiva, which admittedly is grueling, actually elongate the pain and emotional trauma. While I was sitting shiva and reflecting on my sister and her passing’s effect on her extended family, I found myself drifting in a direction other than my sister’s legacy. I instead ended up pondering some of life’s lessons that I was taught upon her passing, which is also painful. I write the following not only to flesh out my feelings but also to hopefully make it a teaching moment.



This pandemic has taken a huge physical, emotional, financial and mental toll on our lives. In these few months, many of us have given up much of what we were used to. No more Broadway shows, no movies, no Bar/Bat Mitzvah or wedding extravaganzas, limited vacations, small family gatherings and no hair appointments, etc. Essentially Covid has this huge power over us to completely change our normal trajectory. I know that I have radically altered the way I live as we all have.

Covid had such power over me that when my child got married in mid-May, which was the height of the pandemic, my siblings were not invited to the wedding, as we could only have a max of 10 people in a gathering. My baby sister did not come to the wedding, and neither did my own mother because of Covid concerns. This was the right thing to do but it was torturous. Following the wedding, there are usually seven days of celebration where the extended families get to meet each other. There was none of that.

In addition, there has been no familial fraternization for close to a year, which is terrible because out of sight is out of mind. Like most, I deal better face to face. The bottom line, while not being estranged from my family, I was basically estranged from my family. What a horrific time.


Well, the familial estrangement ended with a funeral. Somehow, someway, by some means, we all managed to have a family reunion. How can we see each other face to face?  What about Covid? The answer to this of course is Covid, shmovid. When a loved one dies, you drop everything and run without hesitation. You get on a plane. You hug the kids. You hand the shovel from one person to the other. Covid lost all of its power, control and influence. After so long, we were all finally together, but it strikes me as too little too late.

The above thought is and was very painful to me. I love my sister but I was not attentive to her. I am proud of her children, but how were they to know. I kept it to myself. I can blame it on Covid, I really can. However, I really cannot. I allowed this insidious virus to alter my common sense and behavior.

I implore you to reach out and call, write, email, fax, Skype, Zoom and visit. A visit can be done safely and it should be done. I learned in the school of hard knocks that life is too short.



The second thing I realized is that I don’t know my sister’s favorite color, her kids’ exact birthdays, likes or dislikes. I knew her as a brother should know a sister as I grew up with her. I did not know her well enough as a mother or grandmother, wife and mother-in-law. In other words, life makes us run on autopilot. We need to first get through the day, then the week, and then the month. Mortgage paid — check. Car payment- check. Called the dry cleaners for a pickup — check. Nothing changes in our lives. If we are not careful, we exist simply to pay Chase and National Grid.

I am finally awake from my slumber, but it took a hard smack to recognize reality. We need to be intimately involved with our loved ones. We must be proactive and attentive. We need to take interest in the smallest details of a family member’s life and not just a peripheral glance. We should be enmeshed knowing what is going on. Having said this, we are not allowed to pry, G-d forbid. We do need to be open, reachable and emotionally available all the time. They need to know your love for them. Don’t keep it a secret.

Everything is still very surreal and strange. I just got up from shiva. The very first thing I did is pen this to myself because I did not want to lose one iota of emotional intelligence. Time has a habit of doing just that.

Now that I have shared this intimate moment with you, I ask you to take this to heart and share with others.

May my sister’s passing be an impetus to the closeness between family.

About the Author
Rabbi Yakov Saacks is the founder and director of The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY. The Chai Center has been nicknamed by some as New York's most Unorthodox Orthodox Center.
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