Chapter Three: Grieving
Connecting to the Living and the Dead
Sara knows that her mother has cancer. She has known it for years. Sara has pictured her mother's funeral in her mind countless times — and suffered from guilt for thinking such thoughts.
Sara's mother is willing to talk about her approaching death. She is too willing for Sara's taste, since it is a topic that Sara would rather avoid. "Not now Mom, we have plenty of time. Don't worry, you will outlive all of us," is her usually reply to her mother's attempts to discuss it with her. But Sara's mother knows that she doesn't have that much time left and she would prefer talking about it with her daughter. Sara feels intense pressure: she cannot give her mother the support she wants and needs — and is enough aware of that to feel guilty.
Sara's father is also perfectly content to remain in the denial stage. On a deeper level he is angry with Sara's mother for getting ready to leave him. He's taking his revenge by turning the denial into a weapon against Sara's mother, "You aren't going to die. What do the doctors know? It's just a bad cold or some kind of flu. You have gone through this before." Nothing his wife can say makes a difference. In some ways Sara and her father are collaborators in a conspiracy of death denial.
Both Sara and her father are denying the difficult reality of the impending death. We, as friends, are faced with the dilemma of whether we should become involved or whether we should unquestioningly accept their method of handling the situation. Sometimes we accept their refusal to confront the situation, figuring "they must know how to deal with it best." This may be due to our own uneasiness about the subject. When we see a friend in such circumstances, the best thing we can do is to let him know that we are there for him. We cannot fully understand what he is experiencing, since we're not he. Saying "I understand the way you feel," may actually cause an angry boomerang effect, "You aren't me, so...!" On the other hand, expressing understanding that the situation he is going through must be very difficult ("It must be so hard to see your mother slipping away" or "Seeing a once vibrant parent hurting so much must be hell"( may cause your words to become a catalyst for him to confront his feelings.
The Mourning Process
As far back as Talmudic times, Judaism recognized that the mourning period has four stages:
During the initial mourning period, the aninut, the mourner is released from performing many of the positive religious commandments since he is considered to be in shock and not capable of fulfilling them.
The emotional process experienced by mourners is similar to the one experienced by people facing their own deaths, as discussed by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic work, On Death and Dying.
"I don't understand, I don't understand," is the usual first response to hearing about the death of a loved one, according to Dave of the New York Police Department. "I used to think that maybe they didn't understand my Brooklyn accent," he told me. "Usually at this point we have the person sitting down. I squat or sit to be at eye level and clearly and gently try to give it over again."
This natural initial reaction is called an "emotional shutdown". At this point the mind is not ready to accept the enormity of what has happened. Do not be surprised if there is little immediate reaction to your news if you are in the position of having to inform someone of a loss. People in shock may react with numbness, or may not react at all.
The mind needs time to adjust, so it puts everything on hold. After the initial shock comes denial. Typical reactions are, "It can't be!" "Not him!" "No way — I just talked to him!" Along with these statements you may hear, "There has got to be a mistake." The person rationalizes, He couldn't have been there since he told me he was going to...." "He probably gave the car to a friend of his and they thought it was him."
My grandmother was an example of extreme denial. My uncle was killed in World War II in Normandy, a month or so after D-day. My father, also at Normandy, went to his brother's grave and had a picture taken to show his mother. But she refused to accept the fact of his death despite the photograph. She clung to fantasies created out of her hope that someday he would return. "You know they sometimes make mistakes in bodies and they bury the wrong one. It happens all the time. I just heard Mrs. Goldstein tell me a story about..." I remember when I was growing up, sitting on a stool in my grandmother's kitchen listening to stories about soldiers who suffered shell shock and lost their memory. "Pray for him," she would beg me. "His memory should come back." She denied his death, despite the fact that I was even named after him. It probably wasn't until the age of ten that I realized that she simply could not admit to herself that her oldest son had died. She would travel to questionable "healer-rabbis" who would offer her all sorts of advice and promises that her son would come back if.... For the rest of her life (she lived until 93) we were all accomplices, playing along. She was never able to mourn, and she lived her entire life in denial.
Regret and Loss
Denial temporarily sets the stage for the mind's grasp of "yes, it is true." Once what has happened sinks in, our natural reaction is to wonder how it will affect us — and the feelings of loss start. "How can I go on without...?" We start thinking about all the experiences we shared — and all the experiences we will no longer be able to share. As one woman related, "I felt like the bottom of my life dropped out. I only saw black, heavy black, almost like a black hole which seemed to draw all of me into it." Or as another reported, "The thought came again and again, how will I cope without my mother? I relied on her for so much. Now who will help me?"
As hurtful as it is to lose a parent, the pain of losing a child is almost beyond comprehension. We mourn a parent for what we had; a child for what could have been. As years go by the memories of a lost parent becomes nostalgia, "Wouldn't my father have liked to have been here or seen this?" Feelings of loss are coupled with warm memories of love. When we lose a child, each celebration of life is coupled with" "...will never see this."
Shlomo, who lost his 23 year-old daughter, told me, "I always dreamt of my daughter's wedding, how I would dance at it — now I will only dance in my mind."
Anger is not always directed at the person who "caused" the death. It can also be directed at oneself and combined with guilt. Gnawing regrets of "Why didn't I...?" can overcome rational feelings and make life hell.
One rainy evening, Shalom's brother asked to borrow his car. An hour later his brother was dead. His car skidded off the road and hit a lamppost, killing him on the spot. Shalom's pain was accompanied by a litany of, Why didn't I warn him to be careful?" "Why did I give him the car?"
We often feel that we could have or should have done something that might have changed the outcome. The guilt these feelings engender is a potent force that prevents or at least hinders the healing process. Only by reviewing the facts with the bereaved over and over again, can we help them deal with their pain and perceived guilt. It is imperative to help them understand that other people would have made the same decisions under those circumstances. Even then it will take time for them to internalize that the death cannot under any circumstances be laid at their door — and for them to lay their feelings of guilt to rest too.
Sometimes even "professionals" can fall into this trap. During the shiva of the two boys in Tekoa I almost became violent when a police officer lectured one of the parents, "Now you see how important it is for kids not to skip school."
In many cases the anger is directed at the person who died, "How could you leave me?!"
Jacob's wife had terminal cancer. She had suffered for a year and a half knowing that she was dying, and had done her best to prepare her husband and her children for her death. After the funeral Jacob displayed what seemed like irrational anger at her for dying. Logically, Jacob knew how much his wife loved their children and himself. He knew she didn't ask for the cancer — but that has nothing to do with the fact that from now on he must raise his two children on his own. She is gone and now all the responsibilities are his and his alone. His angry, "How could you leave me?" really meant, "How will I cope?"
If a family friend were to suggest to Jacob that her death was not his wife's fault it might cause him to react even more strongly. Remember, Jacob's real anger is directed at the situation and the overwhelming responsibility he faces. A better approach would be to simply express understanding of where he's coming from. Placing a hand on his shoulder reminds him that he is not alone. Words like, "This is a really miserable situation you've been placed in," may lead him to talking about possibilities for coping, which will then help him move on to the next stage — that of acceptance. The goal is not to deny his feelings of anger, but to help him realize that yes, he is angry, yes the situation is miserable. Now where does he go from here?
Jacob's anger can and will also be directed at the doctors, "If they only gave me better advice..." This third party anger is far stronger when there really is a third party involved.
Let's look at a second case.
"How could you do this to me?" Lena cried at the grave of her husband who had been killed in a car accident. Did her husband mean to die? Of course not! He wasn't suicidal, he was simply driving home from work when a young driver lost control of his car and hit him head on. Did Lena realize that her husband was actually a careful driver who cared deeply for his family? Of course. But that had nothing to do with her feeling that now she will have to raise her three children by herself. She is angry that her life will never be the same and feels that it is "his fault". Such feelings of anger are automatically coupled with feelings of guilt for being so angry.
When confronting such a strong emotions, do not try to deflect them by saying, "Come on, you know that Jack would have loved nothing more then to grow old with you." Or, "You know it wasn't his fault." Of course it wasn't his fault, but that is beside the point.
In this case — and in the case of a terror attack — there really is a third party to blame. Lena wants to sue the driver's parents. Or in a case of terrorist, the bereaved may want to "kill the bastards who did this!" Under these circumstances the anger is more palatable because — in many cases — it is possible to sue, or offer a reward, or become active against the perpetrators.
My mother's friend Robin had a son who was killed in San Francisco recently, murdered by someone who simply wanted his wallet. He was not given the opportunity to hand it over. The murderer shot him in the back of his head and grabbed the money. Surprisingly, Robin claimed that she had no anger toward the perpetrator, "It was his environment that caused him to do it."
Robin is still in a form of denial. She is denying her natural reaction to having her only son shot and killed, subconsciously feeling, If I do not get angry then maybe he wasn't shot, maybe he is still alive." Robin has to admit this to herself before she can move on to the next stage.
There is nothing wrong with being angry, or even enraged at those who killed someone you love. There is nothing wrong with accepting that anger. The issue is not the short run but the long run. Does this anger become a substitute for the loss? Does anger override the mourner's personality to the extent that it becomes an obsession? Will this anger override everything else in his life?
Anger is usually considered a destructive force. However, in Jewish ethical belief all emotions have both a good and bad aspects. Anger at evil is not a negative impulse. But if anger becomes part of someone's personality it becomes overwhelming, leaving no room for other emotions.
The main question is, can the mourner eventually find a place for that anger in his "normal" life?
One last point: remember the mourner can also be a child. How children deal with their feelings depends for the most part on the behavior of the adults around them. They need to know that the adults' anger is not directed at them, that they are still fully loved. The adult figure is perceived as the rock or the anchor of stability. Seeing unchecked anger in an adult is frightening for a child, as much because of the lack of control it demonstrates as the anger itself. This is particularly true coming at a time when the child needs to feel surrounded by stability.
I will discuss how to deal with different age groups in Chapter six on Trauma and our children.
Previously we saw how guilt is transformed into anger at oneself for not being able to prevent a death. This anger is simply the way the guilt manifests itself.
"It should have been me," cried Sasha. Sasha had gone shopping with her brother, who left the store to get the car just as a bomb went off. Sasha was lightly cut in the face by flying glass and was at her brother's side when he died. Sasha's brother was fifteen.
When disaster strikes several people from a particular social framework — a school, a small community, a youth movement, or even people who were together temporarily — the phenomenon of "survivor guilt" is common. Several of Rachael's classmates were killed in a terror attack. Many of her fellow students went though deep depression. Rachael would often burst into tears and ask, "Why were they killed instead of me? I wish I was dead."
Our natural reaction as a parent or friend is to take Rachael or Sasha in our arms and try to erase such thoughts, "Don't think about it." But they will think about it unless they can work it through. Telling them, "There was nothing you could do, etc." is missing the point. Sasha and Rachael know subconsciously that they could not have prevented the disaster. Yet, they feel guilty since they are alive when "there but for the grace of God" it could have been they who were killed. In addition to the guilt, they feel the pain of having lost a brother and friends. Statements like, "I would be better off if I was dead" are best dealt with by reflecting back at them what is really behind their words, "It is so hard to survive when our friends or siblings are dead and we have to go on without them." "You wish there had been some way you could have known and saved your brother."
Professional help in these cases is strongly advised. The survivors will have a long and arduous road trying to find new meaning in their lives. It is not be unusual for them to do this in a way that identifies with the one they lost.
Shalom, whose brother was killed in the car accident, hated sports. His brother Joe loved them and was always trying to get Shalom to go to a game with him. After Joe's death, Shalom began to play basketball. When asked, he replied, "I am doing it for Joe." He was trying to hold on to a piece of Joe in an attempt to keep him alive a bit longer. Later on he began to say, "I am doing it for the exercise," and even began to attend basketball games. In time, Shalom may become an avid sports fan and enjoy it for itself or he may drop sports slowly as he feels less of a need to use it as a connection to Joe.
What does acceptance really mean?
How long does it take until a person can reach this stage of acceptance?
Can "acceptance" ever really be part of dealing with the death of a loved one? I doubt it, not if we are referring to the acceptance of the death and loss itself. The term "acceptance" should rather refer to the miserable situation in which mourners find themselves: acceptance that their lives will never be the same, but also acceptance of the fact that they have no choice but to find a way to transform anger and grief into a positive though painful recognition of reality. Most mourners develop the ability to place the pain into an emotional compartment.
Depending on the degree of loss, do not expect this stage to be reached during the shiva. It can take weeks or even months. Some people never get to this stage at all and live the rest of lives functioning with great difficulty.
We have all known people who are so devastated that they never recover. It is as though a black hole has sucked in any positive energy they might have.
The "empty chair syndrome" — leaving the deceased's chair at the table permanently empty — exemplifies such behavior. Not allowing anyone to sit in the deceased's chair enables the family to hold on to the illusion that he'll be coming back. It is understandable that they will initially be loathe to allow anybody to "take the place" of their loved one. Once they understand the motivation for their behavior, however, they'll find a healthier way to demonstrate that he cannot be replaced.
Tzila's family decided on a unique and positive expression of their love for their daughter and sister. Her chair became the guest chair. "Now, whenever we have a guest it is as if it is in my sister's honor," commented Rena. "When we look at the chair with someone sitting on it, we can smile."
Others are helped by becoming involved in constructive activities relating to their child's death — or life. I have seen parents become very involved politically; some become active in lobbying groups; others lecture; and still others support other grieving parents.
They find some measure of comfort through such an activity. While it will never make up for their loss, it does transfer some of the energy used in grieving to a more positive outlet.
A parallel may be found in the concept of national mourning in Judaism. The destruction of the Temple, the end (for 2,000 years) of Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel, and the exile of its inhabitants was the greatest tragedy ever to befall the Jewish people. The midrash relates how immediately after the destruction of the Temple, there were those who continued to mourn extensively. They
"would eat neither meat nor drink wine. Rabbi Yehoshua asked them, 'My children, why don't you eat meat or drink wine?' They said, 'Should we eat meat when they used to offer up meat as a sacrifice, and now that has ceased? Should we drink wine when every day, they used to pour wine as a libation on the altar, and now that has ceased?!' R. Yehoshua responded, 'Then you should not eat dates or grapes which were brought on Shavuot, or eat bread which was offered each Shabbat, or drink water which was used as a libation on Sukkot.' 'To mourn not at all is impossible' R. Yehoshua concluded, 'but to mourn too much, is also impossible.'"
(Baba Basrah 60b)
Judaism had to find a way to allow the grief to become part of the national essence — yet not to strangle its continued development as a nation that looks with hope to the future. Thus we remember the destruction of Jerusalem in our daily prayers, fast days, weddings, and countless other ways.
Similarly, on a personal level, we do not deny the grief, but find a place for the grief within our lives.
The Eighth Day Syndrome
Judaism has a unique way of relating to the process of mourning in that it regulates what happens during the first seven days after the death of a family member. During the shiva the mourners are cocooned and provided for, so that nothing will distracts them from their task: mourning their dead. Then, on the morning of the seventh day, the flow of people stops; the living room is empty, and the family is left alone to deal with the void in their lives.
In many cases that is when the real mourning begins. While it is true that the initial, official mourning period has to end, there is definitely a gap between the time when friends leave and when the family moves into the stage of acceptance.
Usually the shiva serves as a catharsis that enables the family to move along the road to eventual acceptance. One friend lost her father after he was already senile. The reaction was almost one of relief. Yes, there was loss, but the stages of mourning went very quickly so that they were left with warm memories of a man who had lived a full life, and had lived to see his great-grandchildren. In such a case, the entire shiva is one of, "Do you remember?" It is filled with taking out photo albums and reliving earlier times.
Even in ordinary cases where the deceased lived a full life, the survivors will feel a void in their lives, and particularly during the first months or so will greatly appreciate extra support. A phone call asking how they are doing, an invitation to a Shabbat meal, help with day-to-day tasks such as shopping or taking care of bills (in the cases of elderly survivors). The survivor may need help with tasks such as clearing out personal belongings. Acceptance is a gradual process. Grief cannot be flicked off as soon as the eighth day begins. This is particularly true in extreme cases such as the death of a child or loss due to acts of terror; the family may be unable to cope after the shiva ends. Usually the evening hours are the hardest, "The rest of the world seems to move on and they seem to expect me to do so as well!" one woman told me bitterly. "But while they can forget on a daily basis, I live in a quicksand of memories that won't let me forget for a minute." In such cases, there still needs to be a rotation of supporters who drop by once a day or so.
How do we handle our own celebrations around those who are still mourning?
All of us have experienced uneasiness and what is almost a reluctance to celebrate when we are around someone who has experienced a loss.
Judaism has found a unique method to deal with these situations. For one year after a death (when the feelings of grief and uneasiness are most raw and intense), the mourner is forbidden to participate in any celebration. This gives the mourners an easy way to avoid celebrations without having to make excuses or feel uncomfortable. (There is, however, a way around this prohibition, if the mourner wants one. If the mourner is given a job to do at the celebration he can attend because he is there to work, rather than for pleasure.)
This year gives time a chance to do it's healing, though in some cases a year may not be long enough.
Mourning for a son or daughter is never really over. I have seen parents who had trouble celebrating the birthdays or bar mitzvahs of other children years later. A haunted look comes into their eyes; they are no doubt thinking, "...will never have this."
Karen and Shelly were good friends. Both had teenage daughters who were close in age. The two women would spend hours talking about their children's futures: about the kind of weddings they would have, their grandchildren, etc. Then Shelley's daughter was killed in a car accident. Afterwards the women were still close friends but there were subjects that seemed to be taboo between them — or that's how it seemed to Karen.
Then Karen's daughter became engaged. A number of neighbors got together and were talking about the upcoming wedding. Karen glanced over at Shelly, who was sitting very straight in her chair. Although Shelly was participating in the conversation, her face was blank. Karen felt a pang and wondered what was going though Shelly's mind. Was she thinking, "My daughter will never experience this — I will never experience this?"
Karen began to feel guilty about being so happy; one emotion after another raced through her mind. "Should I not have invited her? What a great person Shelly is, coming to my house with all she must be feeling. Still, maybe I should have toned down my enthusiasm. Maybe I shouldn't make such a 'big deal' about the engagement. Wait, it is my celebration. Why should I feel guilty because of Shelly's loss?" These feeling soon turned into anger at Shelly for "ruining" her party. Needless to say, all of this took place in Karen's mind without Shelly actually having done or said anything.
Karen's mistake lay in not talking to Shelley before the party. Being open and honest is the best policy. Karen should have said something like, "Shelly, I want you to be the first to know....We are having a party and I would love you to be there, but I don't know how you feel about it and I don't want to cause you more grief then you already have."
There is no way of protecting our friends from the pain they will feel at a celebration that cannot help but remind them of their own loss. There is no way to stop them from thinking about "what might have been." By sharing her thoughts with Shelly, Karen would have demonstrated her sensitivity to the inevitable mixed feelings that the engagement must arouse.
In almost every house celebrations cause a degree of tension. Especially during the first few years, siblings of a deceased are under a double strain: They may feel guilt about having a good time in the shadow of the past events, and they may feel anger with a parent for not really "being there" with them at the celebration.
"Shlomo is dead," complained one young man whose brother was killed in Lebanon. "I know it, I'm sorry, but why does she (his mother) have to make us feel bad every time we want to have fun?"
Long after the Shiva
Long after the shiva is over, there will still be dates that cause stress. Naturally the yartzeit (anniversary of the death) will be a difficult time, but it is also a specific period in which the mourners can focus on the deceased.
My father-in-law died of cancer at home on Shavuot (Pentecost). Twenty years later, this holiday is still difficult for my mother-in-law and my wife. As the holiday begins, although we don't always verbalize it, each of us privately relive those last few hours. Each year, when I recite Kiddush on Shavuot, I remember being in my father-in-law's room and knowing that he only had a few hours left. I recall the last words I said to him.
Holidays can be times of tension for anyone. We look around the table and think of past holidays that our loved one shared with us.
Knowing in advance that a holiday will not be easy gives us time to prepare. We do not want a festival to be converted into a day of sadness. Sometimes having company can make it go a bit easier. Eating at another family's home or going to a hotel can be a way to deflect the focus from the loss until we can find a constructive way to incorporate the memories into our holiday.
Fear of Forgetting
Time heals by causing the pain to recede, but there is a flip side to this, especially where children are concerned.
A young child may feel guilty when it takes an effort to form a clear mental picture of his deceased brother after a while. An older child may feel guilty when he realizes that he has not thought about the deceased for some time.
All of these natural feelings need our acknowledgement and support.
Rachel approached me one evening near my house. The conversation went something like this, I think I'm not normal." "You're afraid something isn't right with you?" "Yeah, no other person would forget Koby (killed by terrorists 6 months earlier) so fast." "You feel bad that you think about him less." "Yeah, you know sometimes days go by and I never even think of him. I must be a monster...."
This very normal fear of forgetting is even stronger in the case of siblings. It manifests itself as guilt when a sibling realizes that he hasn't thought about his deceased brother or sister for a while. As time goes on, he may have to look at a picture to remember what the deceased looked like (especially if he was young at the time of the death). In such cases, long-term help is necessary.
When it comes to classmates and friends, it is important that children understand that forgetting a sharp pain is a blessing. Without it, none of us would be able to visit a dentist more than once.
We don't think about anybody all the time. They are certainly not constantly in our thoughts if they are no longer part of our daily lives. For weeks Rachel might not think about a friend who moved away or even went on vacation. The only reason for Rachel's guilt is that Kobi is no longer alive. Children should be helped to understand that.
They must also understand that the person who has died has become part of them through memories and shared experiences. Kobi will always be part of Rachel because he helped shape who she is and how she relates to the world. Once she understands that, she won't feel guilty about letting go.
Many of us had a grandparent or another relative with whom we were very close. Whenever we think about them, we are filled with warmth, as if we'd drunk a good single malt scotch. Just the fact that we knew them makes us (hopefully) better people. Our goal is to help our children absorb the good of the person they lost and to assure them that they're not betraying his memory by continuing their lives.
"It's My Turn"
Many of us, as adults, have passed the age our parents were when they died. When we reach that milestone, we pause and reflect on our loss and think about how young we feel, yet a vague uneasiness regarding our own mortality creeps in. Indeed, almost 2000 years ago the Talmud stated that each of us is judged during the five years preceding and the five years following the age that a parent was when he died. (Breishit Rabbah 65:12).
Shulamit was just 16 at the time of her death. Now, three years later, her sister Dana is approaching that age. Her mother wants to make her a big party but Dana refuses and her mother doesn't understand why.
The death of a sibling at an early age evokes complex feelings. Foremost among them are guilt and fear. "How can I celebrate being 16 when Shulamit was killed at that age? I would rather pretend I don't have a birthday this year." "If I celebrate, won't I cause God to be angry with me and maybe punish me?"
What is not verbalized is the anxiety, "Maybe I will die at the same age." Thanks to help from a social worker, Dana was able to become aware of her feelings and communicate them to her mother — and together they decided how to mark her birthday.
Does our Role ever End?
As time goes by the sharp pain will slowly recede, and, hopefully, leave in its place warm memories. As trite as it sounds, the phrase "It does get easier" is true.
However, when a child has died, the mourner needs support for a longer period of time. The first year is simply hell. Doing normal everyday tasks (like shopping or going to the dentist) becomes almost impossible, taking enormous amounts of effort and leaving him drained. Such mourners need a continued strong support system.
In many cases, this may be a bit difficult since after the shloshim (first 30 days) most of us want to get back to our own daily lives. One supporter told me somewhat embarrassedly, "I find it harder and harder to go over there. There is such a heavy feeling. I come out so depressed that I look for excuses not to go."
Some supporters may be understandably reluctant to continue their visits — "out of sight, out of mind". Most of us do not have the will power or emotional strength to continue offering support on a long-term basis. However, such support is crucial in facilitating the healing process. It's not a matter of "all or nothing". Phone calls, emails, letters, an occasional visit are all good ways to show that you haven't forgotten about them.
For those who continue to give intensive support, it is vital that the entire burden not fall on one person. Hopefully there are a number of people who can share it.
Our role as supporters, as human beings, never really ends and should never end. While the family will need us less, there will be times when a soft shoulder or the squeeze of a hand is helpful. The hardest times will, of course, be holidays and birthdays. Keep this in mind.
So how do you know when to ease out? Simple. One day, when you invite the family to dinner, they will tell you, "It's ok, we will be eating at home — just the family."