Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Remembering Uncle Paul Kalish, z''l (Melech Yona ben Yidel Dov)

It's so hard to write these words today.  My uncle, Paul Kalish, passed away this morning at home after a valiant 10 months battling glioblastoma.  I am missing him tremendously as the memories are piling up and the tears are spilling over.

My Uncle Paul was my rock for the year that I was mourning my father.  When I could not voice the words, he read my eulogy to my father at the funeral.  Then, completely unsolicited, he volunteered to say Kaddish for his brother-in-law... for the entire year!  This was no small undertaking.  I know that he did it mainly as a kindness to my father, but having company in my journey made it both more bearable and less stressful, as I could count on him on the few days that I was unable to make it to a minyan.  At the same time, knowing there was another person sharing my journey of remembering my father in that way made me feel less alone in a lonely period.  

For my whole life, Uncle Paul was my confidant.  He was always just a phone call away when I was growing up and I used to talk to him about dating prospects before my parents imagined I was even in a relationship.  He listened, gave advice and kept all confidences close to the vest.  He had a knack for making everyone laugh in the most positive way, being honest about life's realities and challenges and simply always being there.  Always.  

Uncle Paul knew just about everyone in the Baltimore Jewish community and his chessed knew no bounds.  He used to organize kiddish at his shul and make sure that everything was set up and presented in just the right way.  His creative juices flowed in many other areas as well.  His jokes were both funny and memorable and his photographs captured all the important occasions.  His woodworking skills were second to none - I often heard about how he and my grandfather built the first Aron Kodesh for the Young Israel of North Bellmore when it was founded.   I loved to hear him reminisce with my mother about the early days, growing up in Long Island with a houseful of siblings.  Uncle Paul's perfect vocal imitations and storytelling skills made the moments come alive for me in my mind! 

I hate that this past year he had to suffer through painful treatments and unimaginable stressors.  For someone as good, kind, compassionate and generous as he was, death should have come with greater dignity and ease.  My grandmother used to say that he'd give the shirt off of his back if someone needed it.  It's true, I've seen him do it.  It's been very difficult to watch from the sidelines for the last many months and even more difficult now that the end has come.   

How I'd hoped he'd be able to meet my baby and participate in a meaningful way in a bris or naming ceremony.  How I wanted my baby to meet him and know all the love and joy that he had to give!  And how I never imagined being in a position where I could not attend his funeral in person and support my mother and family in their grief and mourning.  It's just not fair.  

The hardest thing of all is not being able to act.  It makes me feel helpless.  And like my father before me, all I want to do is try to take away some of the pain that I'm witnessing.  Watching from afar and not being able to help... that is the hardest thing.   

But I'm not going to stop at bemoaning the circumstances of the situation.   I AM going to act - in his honor and in his memory.  Tonight, I'm going to bake challah.  Tomorrow, I'm going to watch the funeral on zoom.  And after that... I am going to be the rock for my friends and family - for anyone who wants or needs a listening ear.  

Uncle Paul, from the bottom of my heart - thank you for all you've done and all that you have meant to me throughout the years.  Your memory is a blessing to everyone who had the privilege to know you.  I'm proud to be your niece and so grateful to have benefitted from your love and kindness.  I love you deeply and will miss you SO much.  

Monday, May 24, 2021

A Club No One Wants to Join

The experience of loss is jarring.  Whether preceded by a long illness or a sudden, unexpected parting, it is impossible for the survivors to return to a place of blythe ignorance of the pain induced by the mourning process.

What I learned from my own experience of mourning my father makes me feel both more hesitant and more determined to do my part in offering comfort when the time arises.  

As a friend commented to me in the aftermath of losing her father, "the worst possible thing has happened - how can there be any more sorrow left in the world!"  So true.  It is unthinkable that so much pain can exist, and knowledge and understanding of the toll my own pain took and the road I've had to travel since only makes such news even harder to bear.

I know I cannot comprehend anyone else's feelings of grief and loss.  There are so many many human variables at play.  

And yet, I feel. 

From the other side of the curtain, I find myself tearing up at news of the death of a stranger's aged parent.  I cry for a bereft adult child who has lost a parental confident after many years of love and support.  And I cannot fathom the loss endured by young children with so many milestones to be experienced in the absence of a beloved parent.  And other unspeakable losses... There are no words.

And yet, I feel. 

I feel news of loss more deeply and more keenly than I ever did.  Making it simultaneously easier to empathize and harder to offer comfort, because I know that platitudes are not helpful.  

It is a painful conundrum. 

I cannot offer happy hopes that the pain will swiftly go away... because I know it will not.  I cannot visit a shiva house without experiencing flashbacks of my own period of intense grief and I wish with all my heart that there was any kind of fix - something I could offer that would make a real impact and lesson the pain of the other.  And yet, when I was sitting shiva, I found the greatest comfort from those whose faces showed that they understood - and my heart cried for them too.  

The experience of losing a family member inducts you into a club that no one wants to join - and even so, we are lucky that Jewish tradition offers beautiful mechanisms such as shiva, kaddish & community/shabbat meals, etc. to help us connect to each other.   I feel truly grateful to have found support from my community during my most difficult time and I hope that my experience has, in some way, helped others to find some solace from their own pain.  And in my heart of hearts, I wish I could close the club membership so no one would experience further loss or pain.  At least not until 120 years. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Words Are Not Necessary, But At the Very Least... Leave Your "At leasts" At Home!

Mourning is fraught with feeling.  Every loss is a new one, a different experience and a myriad of emotions, often unanticipated.  When we try to comfort mourners, we sometimes find ourselves at a loss of what to say.  And that's when we blunder into inadvertent conciliatory phrases that might not be as helpful as we intend.

Raw emotion is uncomfortable.  It triggers feelings inside observers, whether we like them or not.  Makes us think about our own human relationships, past behaviors, and potential future reactions.  We don't like feeling uncomfortable. 

It makes sense that we try to avoid feeling powerless, uncomfortable and unprepared by filling the silence with something we feel to be true.  "At least he didn't suffer..."  "At least she's resting now..."  "At least you got to say goodbye..."  Any of these might be accurate, but might not be what the mourner is focusing on at the moment.   Maybe, in the face of this loss, all the mourner wanted was a chance to tell their loved one just one more thing... or maybe watching a drawn out illness tore their heart to shreds.  It's impossible to know how your words will be received - even from one day to the next - as the mourner grieves their loss.  

"At least he's in a better place...."  "At least your father will be a melitz yosher - will intercede for you and you'll get married this year...."  These ideas might help you feel better, but everyone's experience is different... and sometimes sharing your belief can cause more pain than healing.  This is why it is best to take cues from the mourner themselves. 

What can you say instead when you're searching for words?  Try talking about the person who passed away, for example, I like to ask the mourner to share a memory.  Even better, if you have a memory to share, go ahead and share it!  I found these memories to be priceless because they gave me new insight into my father's life and personality - new memories that I could store away now that I could not make any more of my own.   

Every death is different... 

I cannot decide whether my father's sudden passing was easier or harder to handle than my uncle's slow illness.  With my father, we had no preparation and no warning.  It's a comfort to me to know that he didn't suffer - I can say that - but I can only imagine what I might have told him or asked him if I'd had the chance.  Watching someone deal with a drawn out illness is an entirely different story -  in the same thought I don't want to see them suffer but I don't want to lose them either.  Seeing a loved one lose themself to Alzheimer's or Dementia feels like you've lost them long before the final moments... and yet, glimpses of their personality still come through at times to remind you of who they are/were.  And then there are losses where the mourner was not so close to their relative and keenly regrets the lack of relationship.  No "At least..." will fit all of these scenarios; in my opinion, it's better not to try. 

Everyone's experience is painful in a different way, and there really is no comparison.  People who have experienced loss are part of a club that no one wants to join and through it we have a unique ability to know what it feels like to be totally lost and adrift after losing a loved one.  We know that we can't possibly know how the mourner is feeling.  Silence and compassion go a long way.  So do hugs and a listening ear.  And as hard as it is to hold back the platitudes, let the mourner lead the conversation.  They will tell you how they are feeling - and how you can help - if you give yourself space to listen with your heart instead of focusing on planning what to say.  Because, the truth is there really isn't anything you can say to make it better.  Just being there - physically or virtually - is more than enough.  

Thursday, August 13, 2020

On the 3rd Yortzeit...

 Remembering my father tonight, מרדכי יוסף בן שמואל.

3 years. Chazakah. Unthinkable.

In the zoomed-in day-to-day reality, life goes on. In the last 3 years, we've celebrated the weddings of both my father's children and the birth of a beautiful granddaughter (my niece) who bears his name.

In the zoomed-out realm of existentialist thinking, it's still SO surreal that my father has not been physically present for these milestones.

I miss him deeply, especially in the big moments that remind me of the little things such as his omelets and his dad jokes and the mementos lying around the house.

Forever in my heart, יהי זכרו ברוך!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Blessing of My Tears

Written in memory of my father, Maury Joseph Fechter  מרדכי יוסף בן שמואל on his 2nd Yortzeit, כד׳ אב.

In honor of my father's 2nd Yortzeit, I have a special request: Please don't apologize for my tears!

In the last two years, I've experienced such a variety of emotions that it is sometimes hard to sort them all out.  Sadness, loss, grief, anger, love, pride, joy, excitement, longing... the list continues.  Getting married was a true emotional high and such a joyous day.  Walking to the chuppah without my father by my side was something I had never imagined. 

I've cried so many kinds of tears in the last two years that it is impossible to keep track... and sometimes impossible to hold them back.  And I don't want to.  

Each tear is love.  

Each and every tear is a memory, part and parcel with the emotions it triggers.  

And each tear keeps my father close to me in ways that I cannot describe.  But I will try. 

I am so very proud to be my father's daughter.  He was a kind and compassionate man, who quietly tried to take away pain wherever he could.  The Rabbi who conducted my new niece's naming drew a comparison to spices... everyone who met my father walked away with a positive experience.  What a high bar he set for the little granddaughter who carries his name!  

My father was a talented and gentle dentist who preferred not to be any more intrusive than necessary.  I miss him every time I schedule an appointment to sit in the dental chair.  Moreover, he was a dental therapist, who helped calm the emotional nerves, while the novicane controlled the physical ones. 

I tear up when I hear a familiar cadence, or when my husband unknowingly uses a similar mannerism.  I cry to think that my husband never met my father and will never know how wonderfully similar they are in kindness and caring and compassion (as well as punniness and culinary interests).  

I know it sounds like I'm crying all the time (inside, if not outwardly), but I'm not.  I live my life as my father would wish, experiencing positive, happy emotions on a daily basis as well.  Sometimes months go by without a tear.  Sometimes the floodgates open with a particular trigger.  I generally cope pretty well, with moments of weakness here and there.  I'm choosing to give voice to those moments now because they have become a part of me and a part of my process.  And because one thing I wish more people understood about grief is that I'm not ashamed of my tears.   

I get emotional when thinking about my memories and also when I'm afraid that my memories are getting lost. I'm angry at my father for leaving without warning and, at the same time, glad he didn't suffer.  I miss asking him my dental questions - no one will ever take as good care of me in that chair as he did.  And I miss the memories I'll never have - of him meeting my husband, walking me down the aisle, and holding my children.  

It's a mixed deck, but it's the hand I've been dealt.  My biggest fear is that with time he'll slip away completely.  That I'll stop crying one day for good.  And I can't bear that thought.  Because I want to feel.  I need to remember.  I must tell his grandchildren and great-grandchildren what a wonderful Zayde they had.  

Sometimes the tears run quietly down my face, and sometimes they are accompanied by sobs.  Sometimes they simply glisten at the corners of my eyes.  Sometimes there are long dry spells; while sometimes they come in a flood.  But each one is an expression of love.  A memory.  A thought or a feeling.  

Each one tells me that I can still feel.  And for that I'm truly grateful.  

So please, please... don't apologize for my tears.  Offer me a tissue or a hug, or better yet, offer a memory or ask me to share one with you.  Help me remember, help me feel, and most of all, let me add my tears to the river of memory. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

Offering Comfort After the First Year

Everyone knows that the most acute period of mourning is the days and weeks immediately following the death of a loved one.  The only way to survive that time is through the rallying support of one's community.  And our community is truly a beautiful one!  My family and I were truly comforted by the outpouring of love we experienced from family, friends, and acquaintances in the immediate aftermath of my father's passing.

I understand that grief takes many forms for many different people.  However, one commonality is the painful loneliness left in the wake of loss.  A child, who loses a parent in the natural order, experiences the sudden disappearance of the loving parent who was once easily reachable at the other end of the phone.  On the other hand, a spouse is suddenly bereft of the support system of marriage and all that that entails, and is now left living alone and rebuilding life as a newly single adult after many years as a couple.  No matter how much time passes, and how many new relationships and routines are formed, our loved ones leave an indelible mark on our hearts.

In the months and years following shiva, mourners move into a different phase of mourning,  lesser-known and little talked about.  It's the period of rebuilding a life with gaping silences; a time of learning which friends can be counted upon and which friendships have run their course.  I had to draw a line in the sand when planning my wedding, and that line fell very neatly between the friends that reached out to me during my year of mourning and those who seemed to disappear. At my wedding, without my father present, I wanted to feel only support and love and not the pang of fading friendships.  The months after shiva are a time when the mourner is trying to forge a new place in the world and come to terms with who they are without their loved one by their side.

So I have a project for the community.  We can call it "Bikkur non-Cholim," or a "Continuation of Nichum Aveilim," or just plain "Being Good Friends and Community  Members."  Whatever its name, there is a real, genuine need in the community for outreach to those who are suffering.  

To be clear, no one wants to be pitied or coddled, especially not healthy, capable, independent adults.  That being said, no one wants to be forgotten either, and it is easy to feel that way in the aftermath of a loss.  Whether friends keep distance because they are unsure what to say or uncomfortable with this reminder of their own mortality, cutting ties with a healthy widow/er simply because their existence is a reminder of a lost friend is cruel and unusual punishment for the survivor.  We all live busy lives, but little touches can go a very long way.  

Here's how the community can help in the aftermath of the acute mourning period.  

  • Call to say "hello" and catch up - ask "what's going on?" or "what are you up to?" 
  • Extend an invitation to a movie, a show, dinner, coffee, a walk.
    • Show the person you want to spend time with them because you like them and value their company, not as part of a couple but for themselves and the connection you can forge together.
  • Shabbat invitations! (for a meal or a weekend) 
    • Shabbat can be a very lonely time for newly bereaved, as well as months and years after the event! 
    • Don't think that mourning ends after the year of aveilut.  It often takes at least a year to make connections when one moves to a new city/town.  Getting acclimated in your own city/town in a new phase of life can be even more challenging.  
    • Shabbat is a weekly reminder of what was lost and the silence, when alone, can be deafening. 
  • Send a quick text, a random photo or link to an article you find interesting.
    • This lets your friend know you are thinking of them and opens lines of communication if/when they want to reach out.
    • Especially helpful if you don't know what to say.
Most importantly, keep in mind that the point of this outreach is to remind the mourner that they are still loved and valued for themselves, their human traits (humor, kindness, intellect), and not less of a person because one who loved them no longer marks their passage through the world.  Everyone wants to be noticed.  Let's make an effort and notice those in our community who are hurting and offer what band-aid we can in the form of friendship and kindness. 

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Melitz Yosher

It seems to be a popular thing to say when an unmarried child loses a parent - that their now deceased loved one will serve as a melitz yosher (advocate for justice).  From the usage, I gather that this is meant to suggest that the one who passed away will intercede on behalf of the prospective bride or groom to help them find their partner. 

To be brutally honest, and I'm sorry if this offends those who use it, even though I did get engaged during the year of mourning, I have not found this phrase to be very comforting.

Perhaps this is born of my own feelings of guilt at not being married in time for my father to see it, or from the pressure from the ongoing "shidduch crisis," but I actually cringe each time I hear it.  Because, while I don't believe it is intended this way at all, it still comes across to me as though I had a choice to make, a choice between my past and my future, between my father and my fiance (how horrible, right?!).  In my head, it echoes as an accusation, which, on top of my feelings of loss and grief, carries its own sting.   

I didn't get a choice.  And the more I get to know and love my fiance, the more difficult it becomes to contemplate the idea of making one.  Which leaves me wondering... how could anyone be so cruel as to even hint at such a thing?

I've started responding to this comment by telling people simply: "I cannot think like that."  This seems slightly better and less backhanded than "Maybe I'll appreciate that thought one day."  The truth is, there is no comparison between a parent and a husband.  One loss does not necessarily lead to another gain that we can see.  Consider all the people - my friends - who did not get married during their year of mourning and are still in the dating pool!  This comment seems to take advantage of a uniquely vulnerable moment to introduce a hope that may not necessarily play out.  I can't imagine how much more painful must it be for them to look back now and remember all the comments about their loved one being a melitz yosher - when it did not come to pass in this particular way.  Does that mean their loved one was not effective in interceding on their behalf?  Ouch!!!  

Loss & love are not part of a proportional relationship.  It may help me to believe that Gd has a plan, but that's a belief I won't share in an attempt to comfort someone else - because they may not share my belief, and hearing it could trigger feelings of guilt, grief, disappointment, etc.  Judaism's approach to comfort is a good one, in my opinion, because it counsels visitors to follow the lead of the mourner.  When entering a shiva house, one is not meant to speak until the mourner does, and then only on topics raised by the mourner.  This reinforces that the visit is not meant as a platform to espouse the visitors' beliefs, but as an opportunity to help the mourner navigate the various thoughts and worries and regrets they may be feeling.  

Perhaps it is easier for me to accept the comment now because it did happen for me.  Even so, the comment still seems somewhat condescending at this time, because it falls incredibly short of expressing all the complicated emotions that I am experiencing.

Last August I lost my father.  But the word "loss" is entirely insufficient to describe the vastness of the connection, knowledge, security, grounding, safety and love that I had easy access to while my father was alive and can no longer enjoy.

Now, l'havdil, I have a fiance, and soon to be husband, and all the support, camaraderie, friendship, stability, and love that come with him.  I am lucky to look forward to our wedding and to a future together.  

I deeply and almost desperately wish they could have met each other.  It strikes me to the core nearly every day.  My father and my fiance would have found common ground with ease and enjoyed each other's company.  It's unfair that they didn't - and the reminder hurts to hear.  And with all the wonderfulness that they each brought/bring to my life, their presence is not equivalent or interchangeable.  Each holds an important and unique place in my heart, and each is irreplaceable.  

The best and only way I can think of my experience is this:
Gd must have a plan for my father.  Such a kind and gentle soul, he must have an important place in Gd's entourage.  And if Gd needs my father at this time more than I do, I can't help but wish my father success in his new role.  I hope he is happy where he is, even if I miss having him here with me.  So if Gd decided to send someone new into my life during this time, to support me and tell me where the tissues are and help me find reasons to laugh again -- this I can accept with gratitude, knowing I'm very lucky to have found it.  I know that it's not a given - and I know that I've changed as a result of my year of mourning, dependence, and reflection.  Maybe that change helped prepare me for this new step, but I still cannot think of it that way.  I cannot imagine a world where I needed to lose my father to find my husband.  In my reasoning, this is not the definition of yosher (justice).  

In theory, however, it is a lovely idea, and we apply it in practice regularly in our tefilot (prayers), calling on the merits of our forefathers to intercede for us in our petitions to Gd (here's a more detailed explanation).  But perhaps it's easier when time has passed and grief is less acute.  Maybe we can save this comment for when emotions are less raw... when the person being comforted can appreciate the good intentions and join in celebrating the passing of their loved one into a new phase where they can be a powerful advocate for good and blessing and justice in all of our lives.  Maybe we've never thought about the many possible perspectives on this comment before, but perhaps just a little more sensitivity around this issue will bring a reciprocal amount of comfort to all who need it.  

After re-reading this post, I see how strongly it is worded and acknowledge that it is never my intention to make someone feel badly over words used to comfort, even if they do not land as intended.  

I also wonder whether now that I have given voice to my own feelings in reaction to this comment - feelings that I have held inside for more than 13 months - perhaps now I can begin to see this comment from the other side, in the positive way it is meant by people who love me and want to bring me comfort.  Maybe, by acknowledging the way my mind has been working, I can start to free myself from the pain of the idea of this horrible choice that I never had and would never want to make... Maybe I can start letting go of the guilt and allowing myself to truly celebrate the beautiful life that lies ahead.  Maybe this visceral reaction comes directly from my own psyche, and not from the kind intentions of those who suggest the concept of Melitz Yosher.  Either way, the emotions and the pain are real, and very complicated.  It is, therefore, my hope that the explanations and perspectives I've shared will help to alleviate triggers of guilt and hurt for others.  

Remembering Uncle Paul Kalish, z''l (Melech Yona ben Yidel Dov)

It's so hard to write these words today.  My uncle, Paul Kalish, passed away this morning at home after a valiant 10 months battling  gl...