Understanding the nature of grief
The last taboo

Understanding the nature of grief

One of the best musicals I haven’t seen this year is Hamilton, but I have heard some of its evocative lyrics. The last song asks three questions: Who remembers our name? Who keeps our flame? Who tells our story?

Worshippers leaving the Cave of Machpelah.
Worshippers leaving the Cave of Machpelah.

I couldn’t think of more pertinent questions that encapsulate the purpose of remembrance in Jewish life. Yizkor is about the stories of those we have lost, Yizkor is about our responsibility to keep the flame alive.

The theme of memorialising as part of Jewish tradition has its origins in Bereshit at the beginning of Parashat Chayei Sarah: “Sarah died … and Abraham came ‘lispod’ Sarah and to cry for her” (Bereshit 23:2). The word “lispod” can mean memorialise or eulogise. A eulogy is not the same as an obituary. An obituary is about the dry facts of a person’s life, a eulogy is about the vitality of their unique story. An obituary commands respect, a eulogy evokes tears – and that is why Abraham both eulogises and cries.

At the heart of Yizkor is a four-letter word called Loss. If there is one thing that has characterised our past 20 or so months of this pandemic it’s surely the many shades of loss. The loss of life, of health, of freedom and mobility, the lost celebrations and anniversaries and simple pleasures of being with family and friends, community and congregation.

The grief of these compounded losses has only been exacerbated by the absence of the things we usually draw on to help us through – I am thinking particularly of all the strange and sometimes surreal funerals of this last year and a half.

COVID has robbed us of the comfort of closeness, the consolation of saying goodbye to our departed while surrounded by family, friends and community. That’s why we call a funeral a levaya, an accompaniment. We, the living, accompany our deceased on their last journey. We, the living, accompany our grieving friends on that long road from shtibel to the end of shiva and beyond…

Grief is universal and loss comes to us all. And with each loss we remember the many others that have carved themselves deep into our hearts. Shakespeare put it so beautifully and poignantly: “Grief comes not as a soldier but as a battalion” (Claudius, Hamlet, Act 4). In other words, with each loss we are mourning for all our losses. And so, the losses of this pandemic may have become a river of despair and grief for many.

We have a tendency in our Western happiness-addicted culture to neglect and invalidate the emotional experience of people suffering loss. We too often pathologise the natural ebb and flow of grief. There is still too much death denying in our culture and often a conspiracy of silence around it. It has been called the last taboo. Loss is painful, it hurts, it saps our strength, it confuses our minds, it challenges our faith. It’s however only when we deny a grief and don’t let it run its natural painful course that it becomes a problem and possibly a pathology.

Judaism has long recognised this and all those laws and rituals around death and mourning are there to help us acknowledge the abrasions of reality and crevices of suffering that loss etches into our souls. Just think about how confronting our funerals are – there is no prettying up the graveside, no flowers to gentle the gaping hole. Just the hard and sometimes brutal sound of earth on coffin.

One of these marvellous tools of our tradition in helping us with grieving is the ritual of Yizkor, a service dedicated to those who have passed on to “Death’s Kingdom”.

We are the quintessential Yizkor people. We carry memory in our bones, remembrance is in our blood, we remember when the world forgets. Yizkor tells us it’s good to grieve, it’s critical to remember. And thus, each Yizkor time I remember my father Isaac and my in-laws, Zelik and Eva, my grandparents – all those who shaped my childhood, teenage and adult years. I recall you, my family members, particularly those who were killed in the Shoah. I feel acutely the absence of friends.

I carry the burden of grief. Sometimes, as I struggle with the weight around my midriff, I think I am carrying my father’s weight, his burdens of Shoah loss, displacement and identity. These were always solidly expressed in his expanding stomach … But then, I am reminded of his goodness and his gentleness, the qualities, strengths and opportunities he gifted me and my siblings.

Grief therapist Chris Hall reminds us that death ends a life but not a relationship. We find ways of carrying our deceased with us in our lives as they carried us in theirs. Rabbi Steve Leder reminds us that we find ways not to be crushed by sadness for our loved ones would not wish such a weight on us. Even as we “walk through the dark shadow of the valley of death” we know that there is lightness and warmth still in the world. We walk with light and with hope and “will not be afraid for you God are with us” (Psalm 23:4).

As the people of memory, we draw on our remembrances of our past. We remember the Egyptian story and its message: To say every day – I will not remain in Egypt, I will not live as a slave numbed and dumbed by the relentless suffering all around, the unbearable anguish of Afghanistan and Yemen, the Uyghurs and the Rohingya. We remember Persia and Spain, the Soviet Gulag and Auschwitz, the War of Independence, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. We remember not in order to be stuck gazing backwards but by acknowledging our losses we can look forward to the future.

The Hebrew word “Yizkor” is in the future tense – we will remember. We remember for the future, for we are the people of hope and the people of anticipation. We refuse to accept that humanity is essentially evil, we believe in the ultimate triumph of our essential goodness – that’s what it means to belong to a people obsessed by a Messianic vision. Abraham buried his wife in a place destined to stand and be remembered for eternity. We will remember the names, we will keep the flame, we will keep on telling the story.

Rabbi Ralph Genende is Senior Rabbi, Jewish Care and Kehilat Kesher.

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