Choosing Life in Loss
By Hedy Schleifer
” . . .I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore, choose life, that both you and your children shall live. . .” Deuteronomy 30:20
What I remember most about my Dad is his shining, radiant spirit.I will always remember him as a holy man who loved to study the Torah, who delighted in God, in his wife and children, in Shabbat, in life, and in his heritage as a Jew. He and my mother “chose life” over and over again, through the Holocaust and beyond, and they passed it on to their children — and to anyone who came into their lives.
When my father died this past June, I experienced in a new way the infinite richness, wisdom, and healing of my tradition as a Jewish woman. I came to appreciate more than ever, the truth of living life deeply — fully present to each moment of life. The Hasidic image of a human being is a person bringing all of his or her passion and the full possibility of response into every event and relationship. And my Dad, coming from that view of humanity, gifted me once again with its great truth through the experience of his death.
When we received the call that my father was hospitalized with a heart attack, we flew to Israel immediately, but my father died the evening before we arrived. My Dad’s soul, in a perfect expression of his life, had left with the Sabbath and I can still envision the Sabbath Queen carrying him in her arms.Turning into my parents’ street in Tel Aviv, I saw the car carrying my Dad enter the street at the same time. It was my father’s way of greeting us as he always loved to do. I was so touched that the street was filled with people who had heard of his death. My father’s life was lived within a community and his death was a communal event.
Death Tears the Fabric of Life
With my Mom and other family members, we went directly to the cemetery. As we entered, my cousin cut and then tore my dress and the clothes of my family. Hearing, seeing, feeling my dress being ripped over my heart, I felt fully that the fabric of my life and of my family had indeed been torn. In the United States we often cut a ribbon which ‘sanitizes’ it somewhat. In Israel, however, nothing about death is ‘sanitized’ in any way. Instead, the stark reality of loss is held in front of you over and over again so that you have the opportunity to grieve it completely. And that is what makes it such a healing experience — the permission, encouragement, and framework to express fully that profound pain and loss.
As we stood at the grave, relatives picked up my father’s body wrapped in his tallis and tenderly laid him into the arms of the land that he loved so dearly. There was no wood or concrete to separate him from the warmth of the earth. There was no machinery — nothing artificial.We all covered him with the earth until the grave was filled — we, his family and friends, buried him.
After we said Kaddish, a man prayed out in the ancient language that seemed to echo through the centuries that my father would find complete unity. And standing there, seeing the rare alignment of the three planets just before sundown, hearing the voice of 5000 years, I knew that my father’s soul had found his complete unity and was also with us. Everything was aligned and flowed as part of the current of life and I experienced powerfully my Dad’s presence in his leaving.
A New Life to be Lived
Everything that followed was a continuation of that experience. Returning to the house, we were given an egg to eat, a symbol of new life. We were beginning a new life without my father in it. That symbol also said to me, “Your Dad is dead. You have just placed him in the earth.You, however, are alive — you can claim life!” It was such a powerful place from which to enter the shiva, to grieve his death from a place of complete life.
Doing the Work of Grief
Throughout the shiva we got up every morning to do the work of grieving. We wore the same torn clothing that immediately confronted us each day with the reality of my father’s death. All reflective surfaces in the house were covered. We were not to look at our selves or our image as others saw us, only at our pain and grief. We took no notice of the details of daily life. Our work was to mourn and everyone supported us completely in doing just that.
As people came to the house, they did not talk about weather or politics, only about my Dad. I heard about his life from the postman, from his friends, from neighbors, from a man who took his 3 year old son to the park every Shabbas and talked to my father, from a 90 year old Russian man that he visited every day. To hear the fullness of his life and how he had touched so many others was so precious to me, and so important for my grieving. No one told us that we should feel ‘better’ or ‘move on.’ They stayed with us in our pain and assisted us through their presence and their remembering of my father. The seven days were a true tribute and celebration of his life.
At the end of the shiva, I made the decision to stay in Israel for the remainder of the full 30 day period of mourning. My cousin proclaimed the end of the shiva and we changed out of our torn clothes to go to the cemetery. Through a brief service at the grave we said, “We have grieved tremendously for you these days and now we are going to begin to resume life, a life without your loving, caring presence in it. . . We will do all the things of daily living for the first time without you being with us.” It was not a matter of ‘getting on with our lives’ so that we didn’t have to think about and feel our pain anymore. Instead, it was a getting on with life from the view of missing my father deeply in every detail of our living.
From Full Life, Feel the Pain of Death
When we returned home from the cemetery that evening, we walked to the beach where my Mom and Dad had walked so often. The sun was just setting and my mother was enthralled with the beauty, with the sun, the air, the ocean. She kept saying excitedly, “Look at it!! Look how beautiful it is!!!” And suddenly it hit her that she would never again share that with my father. I again marveled at how extraordinary my mother is. She went to that beach not as someone who is missing part of herself, but as a woman with her soul completely open to the beauty of Creation, a woman fully alive. From that place of deep life, she felt profoundly the pain of death.
People continued to come or to call to talk about my father throughout the 30 days. We gradually resumed the tasks of living– going to the market and to the lawyer, cooking and cleaning — all with the awareness of each one being done the first time without my father. Had this all not been set in the framework of an ‘official’ grieving period, we may have easily become task-oriented, but the 30 day period made it clear that each action was in the service of our real task, which was grieving.
During this time we also talked with the Israeli Arab doctor who had treated my father with such amazing care and respect. He patiently told us about the events of my father’s heart attacks and death. He took us to the hospital room where my Dad died. I had learned that when my Mom, who had been at home for a short rest when my Dad died, came to my father, she had uncovered him, caressed him and told him all the things she needed and wanted to say to him. No one whisked her or my father’s body out of the room. On the contrary! The doctor had encouraged her to take all the time she needed. And my mother, trusting her inner voice, went back and forth twenty times to say her good-bye to my father.
The Wisdom of Judaism Honors the Work of Grief
I continue to be completely awed and profoundly grateful for Judaism that centuries ago recognized intuitively the needs of a person in grief. The tradition not only respects the process, it honors it and encourages it. It also encourages me in so many ways to live deeply each moment, including the deepest anguish, and to express the truth of my soul. It sets before me a way to “choose life” in every moment of my life. I have heard people say many of our rituals belong to another time. Yet, as a therapist, I am amazed at how attuned our ancestors were in creating this framework for so profound an experience.The rituals were a container into which I could pour all of my anguish, that welcomed me with all my pain and provided a secure, safe space for my grieving. They gave us complete permission to scream, to cry, to wail, to laugh, to feel and think everything that we felt and thought.
I felt intolerable pain in losing my father, in realizing that I can never again hug him, touch him, hear his voice and his laughter. And at the same time, I feel a deep peace in the awareness that I am totally connected to him soul to soul in an even more profound way. I now share even more with his soul that I feel so present to me. I have grieved tremendously and yet, I also feel lightened and enlivened in a way that I cannot explain.
Our tradition recognizes that tension of holding on to those we love and letting go of them so that we can live with new depth. To the extent that we shut ourselves off to our pain, we diminish our ability to feel joy and to live fully. My Mom showed me so clearly that welcoming with open heart the joy of being alive, allows us to feel our pain deeply, not from a sense of deprivation of life, but from an abundance of life that ultimately heals the wound.
My father’s death and the process of grieving it from within the safe and sacred space created by ancient rituals has given me the ability to truly live more deeply, than ever before. It is the second time my father has given me the gift of life. Thank you, Papi. And thank you God — for truly “preparing me, sustaining me, and bringing me to this moment” so that I can celebrate what is at each and every moment — so that I can wholeheartedly “choose life!”
Copyright 1996-2010, Hedy Schleifer, MA, LMHC. Miami Beach, Florida. Copies of this article or parts thereof may be reproduced for personal use but must contain copyright information. Reproduction for financial gain is prohibited.