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.  

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...