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.  

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I am an educator who is trained to reflect, not a rabbi or any type of halachic authority. 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.

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