Thursday, September 28, 2017

Seeing Thestrals - Initiation Into a New Fellowship

This post is dedicated to the blessed memory of those my friends loved dearly: Chieyna Miyza bat Moshe, Eliezer Yosef Chaim ben Avraham, Chaim ben Emmanuel v’Chava

After witnessing the death of Cedric Diggory during the Tri-Wizard Tournament the previous year, Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts and a new reality: he can see thestrals, the mythical beasts that pull the “magical carriages” from the train to the castle.  This new development brings him into fellowship with Luna Lovegood and other students who can personally understand the suffering Harry has experienced as a result of his loss.  Harry’s new reality, marked by both physical and metaphorical “seeing,” sets him apart from his friends who still believe that the carriages move on their own.  Harry, on the other side of suffering knows that there is a limit even to magic.  It is this realization that makes the world at once less secure and more valuable than ever before.

So too, suffering the loss of a close relative is the high cost of membership to a new club of those who have experienced the death of a loved one.  There are no words to describe how one’s world is tilted on its axis and nothing will ever be the same again.  My brother’s friend remarked during shiva that “it doesn’t get better, just different.”   The pain may dull with time, but then return as sharp as ever when least expected.  There’s nothing anyone can say or do to take away the pain, but fellowship with those who understand can offer a modicum of security in a world that has suddenly become unreliable.  

A few important things my friends have taught me:

  • You are not a performer. Humans need time, space and permission to grieve. Give yourself permission to be human.
  • It may help to find an outlet -
    • Talking: to a family member, a sympathetic friend, a club member who is farther along in their process, or a bereavement group
    • An activity: crafts, exercise, prayer, etc.
    • Writing: journaling, blogging, emailing friends/relatives
    • Reading: Many books have been written from different perspectives on death, loss, kaddish, and resilience. You may find one or several that speak to you.
  • Don't be afraid to speak up and say what you need. Most people genuinely want to help and will appreciate you telling them what you want (or don't want). It eliminates the guesswork for them and helps you at the same time.
  • There are resources available both in your community and online.  Community professionals (rabbis, social workers, etc.) can help direct you to opportunities for counseling, bereavement groups, web forums and other services that may help you process your many feelings.
  • “Strong” has many different faces.  Cry, laugh, pray, work… do what you need to do to get through the day, one day at a time.  
  • There is no wrong way to mourn - take your time and take good care of yourself.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Reflections upon the Completion of the Shloshim for my Father

Shared on 9/17/17 at Congregation Ohab Zedek in Manhattan at Sunday morning Shiur & Shmear. Sponsored on the occasion of my father's shloshim.

Most of you at OZ didn’t know my father, so I want to say a few words about who he was and what I have learned about him and about myself in the time since he passed away suddenly a month ago.

My father visited OZ with me once while I served as Youth Director.  I walked with him to the lobby in front of the main shul, where Meyer Muschel took him under his wing and whisked him inside, introducing him around as “Amy’s Father.”  It meant so much to me to see the way he was welcomed by so many of you and honored with an aliyah.  I’m glad he got to hear a little bit about my work with the children from some of the parents and members of the shul.

Four weeks ago, we were all in shock that first day after hearing the news.  My cousin Sarah drew a comparison to our confusion and despair, saying it’s like “seeing the back of the needlepoint.”  She said that the front of the needlepoint shows the trajectory of our experiences in this world, giving us a full picture that explains why things happen in the way that they do… but all we get to see is the back of the needlepoint with all the knots, mistakes, wrong turns and loose ends in the stitching of our lives.  I won’t ever know why my father had to go so soon after we celebrated his 72nd birthday (4 times chai), but during the shiva and hearing other people’s stories about my father, I think I have gained at least a partial glimpse of the picture on my father’s needlepoint.

My father was the kindest, gentlest, most patient person I ever knew.   But it's not just me… More than 80 people attended his grave side funeral, many of whom drove over an hour to stand in the hot sun.  Dozens more paid Shiva calls in person or on the phone, and not one could think of anything negative about my father - that's the main thing everyone said.  What a tribute.  My mother and brother and I were overwhelmed.

My father was not only a dentist, but a master craftsman, who even talked about conducting dental procedures in his sleep.  For my father, dentistry was not only a profession, but a calling - he used his skill to take away pain and he was generous in sharing it.  Friends recalled how my father would drive them down to his office on a Saturday night after shabbos or pick up an older shul member to help him get to his appointment (in the middle of the day!).  I also learned that my father saw residents from the neighborhood near his office in Northwest Baltimore for free when they could not afford the care.  

But more than his kindness, my father was a dental therapist - if such a term exists.  He understood the psychology of fear and how it could play out in the dental chair.  He offered guidance to parents about preparing their children for a filling and I personally remember how patiently he waited out my little nervous tantrums when work needed to be done.  

My father was always just there.  He made a point of being present.  Quiet and unassuming, he never wanted to make waves.  But he consistently showed up.  He went to shul each week, serving as regular gabbai and on the shul board.  He didn’t walk very fast, but plodded along steadily, despite painful knee problems in his later months.  Neighbors said they could set their clock by his return from shul and that he knew the names of all their children and where they went to school.  He would wave and smile in the mornings and ask about their wellbeing.  Rabbi Motzen of Ner Tamid in Baltimore recalled the day that my father quietly handed him a sharp knife, because he had noticed that the rabbi was having trouble slicing the challah for seuda shlishit and didn't want him to struggle anymore.   

Presence.  I’m so glad that the last few years I had been making a point of going home regularly to spend quality time with my parents and join them on vacations.  I have a picture of an omlette my dad made me one morning and several of him watering his garden.  I am finding these pictures of everyday events to be much more meaningful than those posed on special occasions.  I even have a photo of him putting up the mezuzah as the last thing he did before we left the new Florida condo the week before he passed away.  I will treasure my memories of my father teaching me to dive under waves in the ocean and to fix a running toilet so I could be self sufficient in my New York apartment.  I’ll miss the care and attention he lavished on clothes and laundry (he always wanted to preserve and take care of things nearly as much as he wanted to help people) - I wish I could ask him what to do with my heavy terry cloth robe…

During the last few weeks, I’ve also learned what it means to be present in a community.  It’s not quite as hard as I once thought to get to shul on time in the morning… and having to get up to go to shul to say kaddish also means having to get up to go to shul for kaddish.  Being present every day means seeing faces grow more familiar (even through a mechitza), developing friendships based on consistent social capital and gaining an understanding of the rhythms, the customs and the needs of the community on a deeper level than shabbat attendance and email bulletins.  

I have plenty more to learn, and I know this year will be a revelation on many levels, but I hope that these lessons will stay with me - to be present and to try to take away pain.  I would ask that if we can all take on one goal in my father’s memory that it be one of these.  Number one: to please make an effort to be present wherever you are - show up to spend time with loved ones and really engage during the time you are together and Number two: to try to take away pain by doing something that will make someone else’s life a little easier.  

As Rosh Hashana approaches, it will be a comfort to me and my family to know that there is some extra goodness spreading around in this world that no longer has my father in it.  

On Friday morning, Allen Katz spoke about yesterday morning’s Torah Reading, where Hashem told Moshe that his days were coming to an end, but his teachings would remain with the people forever.  I have learned so much from the lessons my father taught me and from observing the person that he was, and now, with these glimpses of the picture on the face of his needlepoint, I have never been more proud to be my father's daughter.

Goals of this Blog

I am writing this blog to serve 3 purposes:
  1. Help me process the multitude of emotions and experiences of the shiva week, the shloshim and beyond.
  2. Share some of the unexpected parts of mourning so others in this position can prepare (where there is warning*) or find comaraderie after the fact in company with others who may have encountered similar experiences.
  3. Assist clergy and well wishers in their attempts to comfort the bereaved and guide them through the process.

I am not a rabbi or any type of halachic authority, but an educator who is trained to reflect.  These writings are in no way binding, and may not represent all approaches to and experiences in navigating grief.  In fact, there will likely be those who disagree with me or can offer additional suggestions and reflections.  For this reason, I am leaving the comments section open so that together as a community, we can broaden the scope of this blog to include a majority of human experience.

One important request: Please be respectful in posting your comments and be sure to frame your tips in the most positive phrasing possible.  I reserve the right to delete any unkind comments and plan to update the original posts occasionally to include additional insights and reflections from our combined experience.

With hope and prayer that these writings will serve as a source of comfort and aid to others, I write in the memory of my beloved father, Maury Fechter (Mordechai Yosef ben Shmuel), a kind, humble and generous soul who dedicated his personal and professional life to alleviating pain wherever possible.  May his neshama have an aliyah and may we continue to bring nachas to his memory.

Please look for these clues to assist in navigating to relevant posts. The search feature will also be enabled to identify terms such as ("clergy," "friend," "first days," "tribute" to my father, "reflections," "kaddish," "mourner," etc.):

* tips relating to the first days of mourning, relates to funeral and other surprises.
^ advice for clergy in assisting mourners through their process - non-halachic reminders that would be a great help
~ what friends can do (read also the * so you can advise the mourner)

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