Grief into Resilience
Yom Kippur 5778 – Yizkor
Rabbi Earl Grollman wrote: Give voice to the anguish In your heart. Talk. Weep. Rage. You grieve deeply because you loved deeply. Grief is love not wanting to let go.
Loss is hard. Earlier this week, when looking at the list of names included in the Book of Remembrance, especially those who have died since Yom Kippur last year, I was transported back to moments of grief that we have shared. I was back with each of you, in my study, in the library, in the family room at the funeral home, at the graveside, as we prepared to begin the funeral service. Letting go is hard.
Looking over the names of those to whom we have said good-bye in the past year, the image that snapped into my mind was that moment standing together for Q’riah. “Grief is love not wanting to let go.” Just before going into the service, Rabbi Gordon and I stand with each family. We pin a small ribbon to each mourner’s lapel. As we make a small tear in the ribbon we say, “Baruch Dayan ha-emet, Blessed is the judge of truth.” It’s the sound in that moment that has power. The sound of the ribbon tearing is distinctive.
The tear serves as a symbol. The fabric was torn, we are not the same, our family is not the same. And it will not be. Hearing the rip of the Q’riah ribbon is like hearing the cry of the poet: You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
As Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, as well as the more recent book, Option B, wrote about the days after her husband, Dave’s death, “Grief is a demanding companion.” As she confronted her husband’s untimely death, and the immediate days after, she noted that grief hung around, “Simmering, lingering, festering. Then, like a wave, it would rise up and pulse through me.”
Sandberg’s husband died without warning while on a family vacation in Mexico. He was in his early 40s, a successful CEO and leader in the tech industry. Dave’s death was never part of Sandberg’s plan. She never imagined raising her children without him, never imagined her life without him. At one point soon after his death, she felt that what she needed was her husband, Dave. Her friend told her, “Option A isn’t available. You’re going to have to make do with Option B.”
With Q’riah we recognize that life’s fabric has been torn, and that garment probably will not fit in the exact same way again. Hearing the tear of the Q’riah ribbon, we have not yet said good-bye, we are not ready to say good-bye, but everyone has gathered, things are in motion, we must go on. Ok, I’ll go on. The days, weeks, months, and years after losing our loved ones are the reluctant chapters into which we wander, especially when we lose loved ones too soon or unexpectedly.
What does it take to move forward? Resilience—something we have, something we can cultivate. As Sandberg writes, “I don’t know anyone who has been handed only roses. We all encounter hardships. Some we see coming; others take us by surprise. It can be as tragic as the sudden death of a child, as heartbreaking as a relationship that unravels, or as disappointing as a dream that goes unfulfilled. The question is: When these things happen, what do we do next?”
We go on, resiliently. “It isn’t about having a backbone. It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone,” day by day, cultivating a new normal.
In the immediate face of loss, when we hear that Q’riah ribbon tear, acknowledging that our lives have changed, resilience is they key that unlocks gratitude and grace, hope and humor. When we lose a loved one, we learn to say “They have died, but I have not.”
In her grief, Sandberg recognized three challenges, that many of us face to some degree.
For one, she personalized the loss. She blamed herself. Maybe there was something she could have done sooner to help Dave? Maybe if they had made different choices, they would not have come to this conclusion? Sandberg came to realize that she could not think this way. We do the best we can, and love the best we can. In hindsight we may see that things could have been done differently, but we cannot unring the bell.
For another, Sandberg struggled with the permanence of her new situation. When we lose those whom we love we say, “I will never get over this. Life will never be better.” For our partners, siblings, parents, children who loved life, finding joy in how they spent time with you, is that how they would want us to respond to their deaths? Is that the legacy they would want for themselves?
Finally, the pervasiveness of death is always a challenge for those who live. The loss invades every aspect of life. How will I ever be able to focus on work, on parenting or grandparenting? When, as we move out of the immediate days, we realize that the grief does not go away but softens and recedes. Focus on work can be a blessed relief and redirection of energy.
Personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness—the challenges of grief. As we see these for what they are, we can move forward. We move into that next chapter, one that we write with our loved ones’ memories in hand. And in so doing, that is where we cultivate blessings.
As our loved one’s lived, they grew the roots by which we nourish our days after their deaths. As Rabbi Jacob Rudin once wrote, “All life grows riper and fuller when rooted in the lives of upright men and women; when its soil is enriched by deeds of lovingkindness and mercy. All life becomes lovelier when it is watered by streams of memory and fed by the cool springs of recollection and remembrance.”
“Grief is like a circular staircase. It manifests itself in different ways.” Each person is unique, each relationship different. And so loss set next to loss is complicated, because no one death can be compared to another. We each have loved and lost, and we each grieve in our own way. For some, we are only now walking through sh’loshim, the first thirty days of mourning. Others continue through the first year of saying Kaddish. Some of us gather here today remember friends and family who have long not been with us. Some had easy relationships, others complicated. Some lived to ripe old age, others taken too soon. “For everything there is a season, a time for everything under heaven,” wrote Kohelet.
The Yizkor liturgy recognizes the complicated nature of our communal grief. I pray that we find strength in the presence of friends and family around us. And, I pray that the readings, blessings, and prayers found on these pages strike a chord, personally. On the following pages are both traditional memorial prayers and ones that name—and even honor—the complexities of love and death.
Let’s take some time now, silently offering the prayers that connect and resonate for each of us, individually. We’ll come back together on page…
: Living with Loss, Healing with Hope (https://www.amazon.com/Living-Loss-Healing-Hope-Perspective/dp/0807028134/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1506634285&sr=8-1&keywords=living+with+loss+healing+with+hope); 5.
: Samuel Beckett.
: Kindle Location 112.
: Kindle Location 149.
: A Treasury of Comfort, 28-29.
: Grollman, 15.