Though it is now almost thirty years ago, I still remember the first time I heard my esteemed predecessor in the Forest Hills Jewish Center, the late Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, deliver a eulogy. In his closing comments, he said to the grieving family members that grief is the mirror image of love. That is to say, people tend to grieve according to how they have loved. The greater the love they had for the person who died, the greater the pain they feel.
It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But the truth is that it’s anything but…
There’s absolutely nothing obvious about how people grieve.
When I was new to the rabbinate, I remember one particularly traumatic death where the husband in a grieving couple was totally disconsolate, and the wife was focused in on what had to be done next, very high-functioning. I remember thinking to myself- my untried and untested rabbinic self- that she was “doing better” than he was. In retrospect, I was wrong. He was being appropriate to the moment; she was avoiding its horror.
There are few “rights” and “wrongs” when it comes to how people grieve, nor are there any hard and fast rules about the proper tone for a funeral. Jewish law certainly prohibits gratuitous levity and inappropriate humor while in the presence of a dead body, and respect for the dead governs the laws of the Jewish funeral. But humor also can have its place.
Only yesterday I officiated at a service for a woman who had lived a full measure of years, and was a beloved mother, grandmother, and community figure. The service was conducted at graveside, not necessarily a setting conducive to eulogizing.
But what emerged at the funeral was a gracious and generous sharing of stories and anecdotes about the person who had died, a true tribute to her spirit and the role she had played in her family. It was a lovely service with a remarkable combination of laughter and tears. Actually, far more laughter.
Of course, that kind of service is only possible when the death of a loved one comes “in its proper time,” as it were. It is extraordinarily difficult to “celebrate a life” that is far too short.
But the objective markers of what constitutes how a person feels the pain of loss are, in the end, not really objective at all. They are the products of who we are, how we have lived, and how we have loved. The last of those determinants is, I think, the most important.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation
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