There I was, widowed before my wedding.
Ten years ago, I got engaged the day before I finished my studies as a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s William Davidson Graduate School of Education. My fiancé, Rafi, and I, spent that summer looking forward to our wedding and Rafi’s fifth year of rabbinical school.
Rafi and I had been best friends ever since meeting at summer camps years earlier, but we didn’t start dating until he moved to New York City. We weren’t in a rush to get married—we figured we had our whole lives ahead of us. I can’t say I was fully devoted to wedding planning, but we did manage to put down a deposit on a venue, and I placed an order for a wedding dress.
The day I got the call telling me my dress had arrived at the store, Rafi went into a coma. A month later, he died.
It took me years to get to a place where I could talk to people like a “normal” person again. But over time, I figured it out. I didn’t get over it, but I did move through it. I brought Rafi and his memory with me as I learned how to deal. Through my work as a Jewish educator, I started reading Torah again. I focused on spreadsheet work when the heart work was too painful.
It took me longer to really talk about the loss. To figure out how to respond to the insensitive things an astonishing number of people said to me. To discover for myself how I really felt.
And it took me the better part of a decade to get to where I am now. A decade in which I worked as a Jewish educator at a variety of Jewish institutions, including national and local communal organizations, a summer camp, and a day school. In each position, I engaged with Judaism as best I could, whether that meant diving into Torah stories (because even though I was sad and angry, it was still my favorite book) or teaching about theodicy (How can bad things happen in a world where God is allegedly good?). I also took it upon myself to do something I dubbed “widow sitting”—talking with young widows, helping them sort through the shock, making sure they knew that whatever they’re feeling, it’s all normal.
What now? Today, I am hosting the aptly named “What Now?” podcast. During this series, I talk with JTS professors about how they process grief and tragedy through their unique academic and Jewish lenses. With each episode, these professors teach me something new – not “how to get over loss” but rather how to deal, learn, process, and move forward.
Despite extensive research beforehand, it turns out there was no way I could’ve truly prepared myself for this experience. From pastoral care to the Holocaust, living through a serious illness and losing loved ones under the most horrific circumstances, my interviewees astounded me, time and time again, with their empathy, generosity, and wisdom.
Throughout the process of preparing and recording the podcast, I’ve learned so many important lessons. Perhaps the greatest is that, even in our moments of greatest suffering, we are never truly alone. There’s always someone who’s been through our struggles—and, with any luck, someone who is willing to share their experience as generously as the faculty I interviewed did with me.
Grief can feel like an immeasurable weight. This podcast won’t take away your pain, but it will provide you with a few strategies to cope. But perhaps my greatest hope is that you will know you are not alone.
Sara Beth Berman is a writer and experiential educator living and working in New York City. She graduated from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS in 2009 and is the host of JTS’s “What Now?” podcast.