It’s been a strange period of time. We rabbis are used to having many different types of lifecycle events throughout the month. We ride along the continuum of a human life, understanding that funerals are balanced by baby-namings, and that B’nai Mitzvah will hopefully lead to beautiful weddings under a chuppah. We visit sick congregants in the hospital, and hope to welcome just as many healed congregants back into our synagogues’ walls.
Yet, over the past ten weeks or so, I’ve officiated at a remarkably unusual number of funerals. And it seems that I’m not the only rabbi experiencing this. A few of my colleagues have remarked on a similar phenomenon in their communities. It makes one wonder about what might be going on in the universe, and what is causing such a large amount of death…but that is a whole other issue.
Officiating at a funeral is truly one of the most profound experiences. I am always grateful for the opportunity to learn about the lives, successes, legacies, and lessons from each person’s life. I love observing the family systems, and noticing the way that each member functions within the larger whole. As I’ve been conducting funeral after funeral, and meeting with so many grieving families, I’ve come to appreciate a number of grander “life lessons.”
- There is no “one way” to mourn. Each person grieves in his or her own way. This may seem obvious, yet I’ve heard families apologize for “crying too much,” and I’ve had an equal number apologize for “not crying enough.” I try to remind each person that there is no way to predict when and how the loss is going to hit you. You may feel fine one day, then totally demolished the following day. It may even change hour by hour. It may take a person a year to begin to mourn. I encourage each mourner to be patient, kind, and gentle with themselves.
- Friends and family members who come out to offer condolences and comfort are truly appreciated, often with a degree of surprise, by the mourners. I hear repeatedly from families, when I check in with them after shiva, how much the visits, conversations, and even the immense amounts of coffee cakes, meant to them. We must all remember how much our presence means to those in need, and not shy away, even if we’re not always sure about what to say.
- Loss is difficult no matter if it was expected or not, and whether it occurred in youth or old age. There may be a feeling of relief if the loved one was suffering in pain for some time before death, but the loss is still significant and heartbreaking. Just as we tear a black ribbon and wear it to symbolically represent our loss, so does our heart bear its own tear, and our lives are never the same without our loved ones.
- It is our deeds that people most remember about our lives. I cannot stress this enough – mourners have never commented on the deceased’s possessions, nor on their salaries, nor on their cars. Instead, I hear stories about kindness, morality, generosity, bravery, wisdom, humor, and warmth. And, unfortunately, I also hear when a loved one did not exhibit some of these most treasured traits. During our precious lives, we must all remember what is truly important, and fill our days with goodness. Materialism and money are not celebrated once we are gone, and are not a reflection of our lives, unless they were methods through which we made others’ lives better.
- Finally, it is reiterated to me how important ritual is in our lives. I’m sure that anthropologists would not be surprised by this. But, with all the discourse among my generation about eschewing “organized religion,” it is often forgotten how much we depend on the heritage and tradition of our faiths in times of trouble. There are millennia of wisdom in our mourning rituals, and it is comforting to turn to our leaders and say, “Tell me what to do.” The funeral ceremony, burial rituals, and shiva practices are meant to guide us through the first days of shock, unreality, pain, and disorientation. I have never heard someone complain that they held shiva; I’ve only heard complaints from those who chose not to.
I welcome your own observations about loss – what stands out most for you when a loved one dies? Years after losing someone, what is your most treasured memory? What did you incorporate into your own life based on the legacy of a loved one? These are the characteristics and behaviors that we must strive to increase in our own lives, and to make every day a treasure.