When death wounds us

June 26, 2015 § 1 Comment

We fear death and usually hate to talk about it. We have trouble imagining our own non-existence, and we try not to think about what it would mean to live without those who matter most to us.

But death is a part of life, and is its natural conclusion; we find that we must live with it. We make an uneasy truce with it, trying not to think about it too much.

This week’s portion, however, prompts us to think about it. It is unusual in its concern for death and dying, for it has three separate mentions of death in it:

The first relates to the dying body: we are told, “one who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days.” With our scientific mindset, we think of these rules as a form of hygiene: of course it makes sense to quarantine someone who has been in contact with death. But we should note that it has a ritual element as well: death is uncanny, unnerving us even wen it is not one of our own. The impulse here, therefore, is to segregate the forces of chaos, to keep them from striking the rest of the camp.

Our second mention of death in this portion relates to the death of Miriam. Surprisingly, the text is very terse: “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” We have no mention of the ritual that was involved in her burial.

The third mention is Aaron’s death. Here the text is much more willing to elaborate – but some of the details are heartbreaking: “They ascended Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar, and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain. When Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.”

I hope, for Aaron’s sake, that this ceremony was done in a loving and reverent way.

In all three cases, however, the Torah is rather matter-of-fact about death, yet nonetheless unwilling to fill us in regarding the details. For example, was Miriam’s death unexpected? Did the camp bewail her for 30 days too?

I ask these questions because I believe that the rituals that we follow surrounding death are profoundly important. What I have learned in my eleven years as a rabbi is that there is such a thing as effective mourning. [1]

All significant deaths wound us in some way – and that is as it should be, since the people whom we love are profoundly important to us. Grief is a necessary and important response to the gaping hole that is created by this loss.

Grief is compounded and made worse when there is some aspect of the relationship that was left unresolved – for example, when a death is sudden and you don’t get a chance to say goodbye. Or the relationship itself was complicated and you never had a sense of closure.

Effective mourning is what allows you to acknowledge the depth of your loss and grieve it. It also gives you the strength to continue your life even in the absence of your loved one. It’s like the difference between an open wound and a closed one: your loved one. Think in terms of an open wound versus a closed one: effective mourning is what allows the wound to close.

In my experience, effective mourning involves six distinct steps. All of them are important, but they do not need to be done in order. I have listed them here in the order that they appear in the Jewish tradition.

1. You must say goodbye. I have heard a lot of people over the years say that their preferred way to die would be to die in their sleep. Personally, I would rather not: I would rather die in hospice or at home, at a time when everyone was more or less expecting it. That is the kind of death that would allow me to gather my friends and family together to say goodbye.

If you don’t get a chance to say goodbye – if the death was sudden, or took place far away, or you heard about it only after the fact – then you need a ritual to let you say goodbye. I usually advise folks to write down what they would say and then burn what they wrote. The actions of the ritual itself, however, are not as important as their intent. Regardless, you need to find a way to say goodbye.

2. You need to make the death real to you. Our Jewish tradition, in its great wisdom, suggests that we help shovel earth on the casket, so that there is no denying the reality of the death. I will say that there is no sound more disheartening than the dull ‘thump’ of earth hitting a wooden casket. It usually makes the mourners wince. It is one of the most difficult moments in the funeral.

But if you are not able to go to the funeral, or if the deceased was part of a different religious tradition, there are rituals that you can do to make the death real. You can bury something that reminds you of this person. Or cast something into the water or let go of something, such as a balloon or a kite. Regardless of how you do it, the ritual must in some way speak to you symbolically of letting go.

3. You need to summarize the importance of this person’s life to your life. According to our tradition, the ideal eulogy – known as a hesped in Hebrew – is one that makes the loss felt all the more acutely. [2]

If you can’t go to the funeral in person, then you should still seek to read the obituary or the eulogy or write one of your own.

4. You need to let your community know that you have experienced the death of someone close to you, and you need to let your community comfort you. Here our tradition is particularly strong: the kria ribbon – that black ribbon that you tear at the funeral – is a sign among our people that you are in mourning. It symbolizes how your heart is torn in such a way that it can never be the same again.

In this regard, the practice of shiva – observing the seven days of intense mourning – is also profoundly therapeutic, for the whole community pours into your home and tells you how sorry they are for your loss. Usually, after seven days you desperately want to get all of these people out of your house and get your life back. It’s good to know, after those chaotic seven days, that the quiet that follows can be welcome.

I am aware that it’s fairly common nowadays for people to choose to do just one day or just three days of shiva, but I would advise all of you here, now, when you’re not in the midst of mourning, that you really should heed the full wisdom of our tradition. Make it your practice to do the full seven – you’ll be glad you did. Don’t shortchange grief.

5. You need to mark the point when you go from active mourning to returning to your life. In the broader culture of America, mourners commonly return to their jobs and our responsibilities almost immediately – usually as soon as they return from the funeral.

I think that it is a shame we don’t give more time for mourners because it’s an intense process, and it is one that takes time. Our tradition advises us to spend seven days in full-time mourning. That makes good sense.

For the first thirty days mourners are exempt from celebrations of all kinds, and given a wide berth. At the end of thirty days, it is customary to go out of the house, take a walk around the neighborhood three times, and then reenter the household.

At this point, the mourners are entering their new life, their life without this person. I have been a part of this ritual, walking alongside grieving families, and have found it to be very moving.

6. You need some ritual to mark the anniversary of the death. Usually, that first anniversary is particularly hard, but they are all difficult in their own way. When the death was a significant one – a mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, or child – it usually takes about two years to start to feel normal again.

In my eleven years as a rabbi, it has been my experience that there is a correlation between these steps and the sense of completion in mourning.

If you find that there is a death that still wounds you five or ten or twenty years later, it might be that one of these steps remains undone. My advice to you is to go back and ritually complete it, so that it might be possible to heal.

And please know that I am always willing to help. I would be honored, for example, if you called me and asked me to help you write a eulogy for someone who had died years ago. Whatever steps are missing, I am willing and able to help you fulfill them.

Death wounds us, as well it should; these are the steps that allow the wound to close and heal.

This week, of course, also marks the funerals of those who were killed in Charleston last week. We mourn with them. May their families find comfort and strength.

[1] The concept of effective mourning is one that I have developed myself, based on my pastoral training as a rabbi, the unit of Clinical Pastoral Education that I completed at the Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, and my work as a congregational rabbi. It draws upon the work of authors such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. It is, in effect, a statement of my own philosophy with regard to the process of mourning.

[2] See, for example: http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/underhesped.html for a summary of Jewish law regarding hesped.

§ One Response to When death wounds us

  • Stephen Cahill says:

    I have found moments confronting me with mortality. My grandparents could no longer drive the 6 hours to visit. Now my aunt and uncle can no longer drive 7 hours. their escape from NYC and modest apartments was ended. I adapt by coaxing them to let me drive them. The loss of the ability to drive is a taste of death??

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