x Crisis or Challenge: Eli Birnbaum

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Chapter One:
Death is a Five Letter Word

(Note: For the sake of simplicity, "he/him/his" is used when referring to the third person singular throughout the book. The terms of course, include she/her. )

To most of us, death is no stranger. It is part of our lives — sometimes it is introduced to us at an early age. We are all aware that in most societies death is viewed as the ultimate enemy, something to be avoided at all costs. It is the forbidden zone — no talking allowed. Numerous books have been written analyzing the perspective from which modern societies view death — and even more has been written discussing their desperate worship of youth.

Is there a Jewish concept of life and death?

Historically, Judaism has at times considered death to be a friend or refuge. Strange as it may seem in modern times, death was sometimes embraced — even welcomed — as an alternative that was preferable to other options. Entire communities committed mass suicide rather then face forced conversions. Today we have trouble trying to grasp why they would commit such an act. As much as we understand the seriousness and wrongness of being forcibly converted, we cannot understand how anyone could agree to voluntarily give up his life, or worse, how anyone could agree to kill his own children!

Yet Judaism in story and legend has also promoted trying to defeat the Angel of Death. We love the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha breaking death's hold on a young boy. We change the name of those who are very sick, sometimes by adding a second name, hoping to "outwit" fate.

One of the basic tenets of Judaism is that whether we live or die is not determined by fortune or the stars; up until the very last moment God can save us and restore our lives.

In Judaism, we recognize that man is not judged by how long he? lives, but rather by how he lives the years of his life. We believe that life is precious, so much so that almost all halachic prohibitions are superceded by the need to save a life. But the bottom line about living is that it must be done for a purpose. Life without purpose is tantamount to a living death. For our lives to have meaning we need to be able to recognize and accept a higher presence in our daily life, to do good for other people, to give to society, to be productive — and to better ourselves in the process.

When someone dies, the people left behind, the bereaved, go through a mourning process. In almost every culture, the deceased is eulogized for what he stood for in his lifetime: the legacy he left behind, the good he did for others and the fact that he left the world — or at least some of its inhabitants — a bit better off.

"Why is it always the best that die young?" is a common protest. Whether or not it is true, the reality is that these are the thoughts to which the bereaved cling. That is why mourners get comfort from people who write or call, relating small incidents about how their loved one helped someone or left a lasting impression on him. This is the key to our ideal of attaining immortality. As long as we leave some positive impression behind, as long as someone can still remember us fondly, and appreciate us , we never really leave this world.

Learning of a Death

Death is feared by most of us as if the very acknowledging of it were something contagious, "If I don't talk about it, if I ignore it or block it out, then it won't happen to me." Intentionally or not, even the terms we use to describe death are misleading. A person passes away, is gone, went to a better world, is no longer with us. When I hear someone say, "My father is gone," I feel the urge to ask, "Really? When will he be back?"

And the silence, don't forget the awkward silence that falls after you are told that someone has died. How do you respond? What do you say? Maybe that he was suffering and his death was actually a release? You search for words, coming up with some that sound trite to you even as you speak them.

Often the words you say are less important than the genuine feeling of concern that you are expressing. There are many ways to show warmth and support: anything from a squeeze on the shoulder to a hug — or even a few well-chosen words. But many of us take a mental step back and freeze.

Many years ago I was in charge of a program for foreign students. One cold March afternoon a student I knew fairly well was murdered by terrorists. I spent much of the day and evening with his fellow students, and then returned to my office for a short time before going home. To say that I was exhausted would have been an understatement. As I entered the office, a co-worker who knew of the situation, looked at me and said, "Eli, that really must have hurt." With those six words she won me over as a friend forever. Without intruding she showed me she understood, and then she remained in the room for a few minutes without saying anything else. She was there if I needed her support — she understood, and that was enough.

Terminal Illness

In the past, death visited often and suddenly. Barely 100 years ago, people in most Western countries had large families so that some would survive. It wasn't unusual for a family to bury two or three children — or more. Particularly in agrarian societies, large families were necessary to ensure that there would be someone left to take over the farm. Most deaths in times of peace were the result of disease. Children were mourned, but their deaths were considered part of the ordinary life cycle. The process wasn't hidden from the child's siblings. They understood the concept of death and that their brother or sister was dead because they'd usually witnessed much of what preceded the death. After the death, in many societies the deceased was usually laid out for all to see and pay their respects.

Today especially in the west, death is a dirty word even if it's from natural causes. It is something we fight against with all our strength and when it does touch us, it is supposed to be sterile and distant, taking place in a hospital, away from the children, away from the family unit. The deceased is placed in a coffin (sometimes to comply with health codes sometimes for "public decency"), the cost of which sometimes costs more that a used car. If there is a "viewing", it is in a chapel with solemn music, dim lighting and heavy curtains. Often people pay exorbitant prices to cosmetically prepare the body, producing the often heard comment " He looks better now than he did when he was alive".

Death and the Family

The desire of any parent to protect a child from pain and difficult experiences is normal. In many, if not most cases, it is considered healthy. But "protection" can be a double-edged sword that can be destructive to the very children it tries to guard. While I do not advocate taking very small children to a cemetery until they can understand the concept and finality of death, there must also be closure to each chapter of life. When a child asks, "When will Grandpa come back?" he is expecting an answer.

It is also possible for the mourning process within a family to be a positive experience. This is not just because mourning is essential if closure (coming to terms with the loss) is ever to take place. It is also important because it can give children the opportunity to see expressions of love and support among family members that are not usually apparent. Yes, the children will see pain, but this is less important than their witnessing how everyone can come together in a time of crisis.

Of course, how bereaved family members interact is affected by inner-family relationships prior to the death. However, if family members express love and support for each other, the mourning process, with all of its pain can become a time of growth that strengthens both the individual members of the family and the family as a unit. If this happens, it will be a present that the children can internalize and take with them for the rest of their lives.

Sudden Death

The type of death we can "understand" is death from old age which combines two facts that make it acceptable to us: the person lived a full life and he died of natural causes.

What also makes it a bit easier is that most older people don't seem to be as afraid to die as we are of their dying. I remember that ever since she was about 70 my grandmother used to (often) tell me where she kept her death shroud and what to put with her into her grave. After a while it became an inside family joke, "Who tie-dyed (no pun intended!) grandma's shroud?" "Grandma, have you bought anything new to put into your grave?" "Anyone see this months copy of the Journal of Fashion for the Newly Dead? The good humor with which she took this made it far easier for us to accept her eventual death — since it was clear that she accepted it herself.

Years later, when she reached the ripe old age of 90, I asked her what she thought about death. "Well," she answered, "As I get older I seem to know more people on the other side than I do on this side." A few years after that, when she was already quite sick, she asked me to pray that she should die. I confess that I was not able to do it. Instead, I prayed that she would not suffer.

There is a time in life, when we can actually welcome death as an old friend.

But there is another kind of death — the kind that hits us when we are unprepared, that kicks us in the gut and makes it hard to breathe. We do not have the previous understanding and acceptance when a young person suddenly dies. Instead, we are inconsolable. We grasp for answers in anger and grief and are usually left with open hands (or clenched fists) raised toward the sky.

The best definition I've heard of the difference between death from a terminal illness and sudden death was given by my friend Shira Chernoble, who worked for many years as a nurse for terminal care patients. She summed it up in one word, "time". Someone who is hit with the sudden death of a loved one simply doesn't have time to prepare — and neither do we.

Sudden death hits us hard, sowing pain and confusion. One minute we are living normal lives and the next, our whole world has changed forever. Tivka, who lost a daughter in a terror attack, told me, "I was hanging laundry, actually some gray socks, in the back of my house as the police car and an army jeep drove up. My mind began to race, praying, 'Pass my house, please God, pass my house.' But they didn't. From then on, every time I see gray socks I remember to the very second the last time my life was normal."

For many of us, the idea of sudden death brings to mind wars or terrorist attacks, but for others, it conjures up traffic accidents or criminal acts. I will never forget the father of a 23 year-old traffic accident victim, who whispered to me in a quiet moment during the Shiva, "If he had only died in the army, I would have had something to cling to. This way it was just such a waste." To this grieving father, this was the worst death situation possible. His son could not be considered a hero; he could not be regarded as a martyr for a cause, or a victim of a senseless terror act which must be avenged. His son was simply trying to cross the street and was hit by a careless driver who was changing a radio station and didn't look up in time. His grieving and coming to terms with his son's death was a long and difficult journey.

In some ways it may be easier to accept death from natural causes, even if it is sudden. In cases of natural death or terminal illnesses we watch as illness consumes someone we love. We may fight it with all our strength, but we know inside that this person is slowly leaving us. If we are lucky, we will have time to make our peace with him — and with ourselves. We can resolve past conflicts and rid ourselves of anger and resentments, replacing these feelings with unconditional love.

In any case of sudden death, the survivors must deal with the unexpected loss — as well as anguish over the suffering and fright the victim may have experienced as death approached. "What were his thoughts, his feelings?" they wonder. These thoughts can drive them mad. People who have lost a loved one through violence or terror can also become fixated on the act itself.

When the victims are children, sudden death also creates an amplified sense of guilt. After all, a big part of the relationship of parent to child is that of protector. We go through life stressing to our children that we will be there when they need us...and this time we weren't. It is also amplified within all of us upon hearing the news since it hits us in our most vulnerable spot - our children and with it the deepest unspoken fear "It could be me sitting there".

A parent of a teenager killed in a bus bombing remarked, "I spent such a lot of time worrying about him climbing trees. I taught him how to cross a street, how to handle a saw without cutting himself. When he broke his leg on a skateboard, it really hurt me. I was angry with myself for not insisting that he wear kneepads. As he grew older I realized that I was no longer able to really look out for him. But this?...This???"

As adults we can't help responding to a child's death with a feeling of failure and guilt because we were unable to protect him. Can we understand rationally that there was nothing we could have done to prevent the child from dying? Probably, but it will take a while.

Before that can happen, waves of shock and grief will shake us, our families, and our communities, leaving us helpless, weak, and angry. Each of us will just want to go home and curl up into a small ball and sit in the dark and/or lash out at anyone we can possibly blame for what happened. It is at precisely this point that we must reach deep into ourselves to find the inner resources to help us stretch out our hands and begin to heal both ourselves and the other people affected by the tragedy.