Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On grief and loss

Nine years ago today, I lost someone very important to me. He was unhappy with life, and he ended it.

I found out when I was in the gutted Willy Smith school in Violet, Louisiana, running a soup kitchen for survivors of Hurricane Katrina and the volunteers who came to support them. I felt alienated and totally lost. I was far from home trying to help strangers, while my friend suffered and died.

I wrote a long and rambling letter to his family, trying to explain that he loved them very much, though I'm sure it was a hard idea for them to process at the time. Having known him well, I understood why he did it, and I couldn't pass judgment.

When we think of grief, we tend to imagine those desperate few hours and days following a death, in which the whole world seems to cave in and suffocate us. We move as in a crushing water bubble: sound is distorted, and time is marked by meals, bathroom breaks, and going to bed.

We are alive, yet our loved one is not. We cannot touch them, see them, feel them, hear them, even smell them as we did before. We worry that we will forget - or have already forgotten - who they were, and what they looked like. We mix up tenses, wanting them to be present but knowing their lives have passed.

Every year as I get older than my friend, my mental image of him gets cloudier. I worry that I hold an unreal version of him in my heart. I worry that my memories of his life are imperfect. I worry that I am glossing over the complications of our relationship, so as to not speak ill of the dead. I sometimes think I am not supposed to feel disappointed in him, or angry that he left me, or guilty about his death, especially after so many years.

I accept that he is gone, but I keep his number in my phone. Every time I meet someone with his name, I have to pause to collect myself before engaging. I reach out to his sister and father, but I don't know if I do it for them or me.

Jewish mourning rituals extend for years, and sometimes indefinitely, following a person's death. Candles are lit on the anniversary day, and there is a special prayer known as the mourners kaddish. Some congregations say this prayer collectively every week to honor all Jewish deaths.

We talk about loss when a person dies, but mourners end up gaining a new depth of emotional experience. Very few things can soothe the initial angst, or the chilling, ongoing grief. I guess talking helps, but mostly I just sit with it, hoping he finally has the peace he sought.

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Hebrew


May there be abundant peace from heaven,


and life for us and all people Israel, to which we say,


Amen

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