Tag Archives: grief

How do I tell Dad that Mom has died?

How do you tell Dad that Mom has died? This challenging question confronted old friends this past week.

Compassion is such a difficult practice. It is often so difficult to know what is the right thing to do for another person.oldyoung hands

 A friend’s mother recently passed away after a protracted decline. Sadly her dad is suffering from dementia. My friend and her siblings struggled with whether they should tell him that his wife, their mom, has just passed away. Would he find the loss overwhelming? Would he even comprehend the sad news they would share? He has a right to know and grieve the loss of his wife. But if the news was too much for him to handle, should they wait until there was a better time to inform him?

 Further complicating things, he was physically unable to attend the funeral.

 Both options, to tell him or not, are based on compassion for dad. But which one is right for him? She reached out to me for counsel.

My first suggestion was to consult dad’s doctor, someone who knows him and is skilled in these medical issues. The doctor can help ascertain how aware is dad of his surroundings. The children, all adults, can also shed some light on dad’s cognitive abilities, but they are emotionally very close to the situation and may not clearly assess how well dad will process the news. It is likely that despite all attempts to know, it is all but impossible to appreciate how much dad truly understands.

 We cannot know how people will react to this kind of news even without the complications of these circumstances. Maybe dad will have only a moment of clarity or possibly the news will stay with him. He may work through his grief or become overwhelmed by it. I have learned along my journey that we actually only have moments together. Sometimes these moments last and create enduring memories. Sometimes they fade away. The best we can do is to be fully present in each moment together and hope that it endures. The struggle that this family confronts is a struggle we all face, for each of us will experience loss and then try to reconcile with it in the aftermath. We can try to anticipate how people will respond, but we need to be careful in presuming too much, acting for them instead of allowing them the dignity of exercising his or her own agency.

 The Talmud teaches that we treat parents with honor and respect.   Might the ways we do that include withholding speech or information that would be hurtful? If dad still has some comprehension, won’t he feel the sadness in those surrounding him and wonder why his wife no longer visits? Further, how will he react if he learns of his wife’s passing long after the fact without the chance to mourn her loss? Arguably we honor our parents when we include them in even the most difficult things, rather than attempting to protect them. Each of us will be called upon to grapple with a similar situation. We must take the utmost care to ensure that our motives are true and that we act in the best interests of our parents and not fulfilling our own needs disguised as compassion. My friend’s struggle was because she loved her father and wanted what was best for him.

 Zichronah Livrachah may my friends’ mother be a blessing for the family. May her father be given the opportunity to know that too.

Where do we go from here?

In the aftermath of four dead children, we need to carefully assess who we are, not who we believe ourselves to be.  It is hard to be self-critical, but it is critically important.  The tragedies of the four slain boys is deeply shocking and painful.   What it can tell us about ourselves is a step toward understanding those we currently consider adversaries on so many levels and how we might find a way to live together.  The horrible reality is that we have been sacrificing our children for way too long.  Our tradition compels us to continue to seek another way.  It will be hard and fraught with obstacles and disappointments.

Israel is a nation of laws.  Once, the aspiration was that Israel would be a nation like all other nations.  But in fact, we hold Israel to a higher standard of ethics and morality.  Although inevitably she will fall short of our ideal, it is the aspiration that makes her the land of hope for all Jews.  We support and love her and commit ourselves to striving to reach the ideal where all children might live in peace and security.  We have much work to do.  Let everyone use the tragedy that has befallen all of us to dedicate ourselves to the possibility of achieving peace someday

Discipline at what Personal Cost?

Leaders or anyone concerned with the welfare of others can find themselves confronting a challenging personal conflict.  We saw this recently play out in parsha Shimini. Here, the story of Aaron is an extraordinary narrative illustrating the real tension in trying to navigate the waters between public and personal needs.  In parsha Shimini, there was an imbalance between the two competing needs and the cost of doing one at the expense of the other was overwhelming. 

Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s sons are killed because they brought an offering of “alien fire” before God.  But instead of grieving as any father would, Aaron is admonished not to acknowledge this tragedy in any way.  He is to attend to his sacred duties. The needs of the Kahal outweigh the personal need.  So Aaron tries to fulfill his duties as the High Priest, as Moses instructed.  Aaron is completely silent, suppressing everything related to this horrific incident.  It is only when Moses chastises Aaron’s remaining two sons for improper ritual that Aaron breaks his silence.  Aaron yells at Moses, unable to contain the emotion that has been bottled up inside.

 Moses was so disciplined, that the needs of the Kahal came before everything else including mourning the loss of the two young men, his nephews, Aaron’s sons.  Moses could only see the need to properly perform the priestly service to the Almighty on behalf of the people.  But it is not his sons that have been slain.  Aaron tried to accede to the demands of his position and do as Moses instructed.  He however was unable to maintain the discipline of Moses. But when Aaron broke down and showed his pain, Moses was moved and in an act of humanity consoles his grieving brother.

 How often are we overwhelmed when a decision has to be made?  Often life confronts us with an “either/or” choice.  We do not have the luxury of the “both/and” that we speak of in our theoretical and lofty discussions.  So often we judge others by the choices they make, when in fact, they often do not see that there was a choice at all.  I recall a profoundly difficult time when this happened to me.

 We sat in shock in the hospital waiting area immediately after my mom’s death.  My dad started to cry.  Then suddenly he sucked it all up, steeling himself to the situation saying, “I have to be strong.” And the tears stopped flowing.  I on the other hand, could not “be strong.”  I needed to grieve, whatever form that took.  I remembered a conversation I had with my mom where she asked me if I would cry for her when she was gone.  I did.

 The differences in our reactions to her death created a rift between my father and me.  I needed to mourn in my own way and I could not do it with someone who was trying to impose such control.  How different might our experiences have been if I could have understood the discipline my father was trying to exert upon himself.  We might have found strength in each other and maybe even the space to share this profoundly sad moment in much more supportive ways. If instead of harsh judgment, I could have found compassion.  If instead of toughening himself for some idealized vision of what it meant to be the head of the household, he could have shared his grief with me.  It took me a long time to begin to understand.  If only I knew then what I know now.

Reaching out to others is a profound gift

I vividly remember that September night in 1987. We had left the hospital earlier that evening knowing that the end was near.  The hospital called a few hours later to let us know it had arrived.  We stood at mom’s bedside holding vigil.  Each of us tried to say goodbye in our own way, a stroke of her hair, a whisper into her ear, holding her hand, a prayer in our hearts.  The truth is we were only trying to say goodbye; none of us could bear the thought of being without her. And then it was over.  Once the monitor was turned off, the silence was intense.  And although I was standing before my mom with my father, brother and sister, I felt profoundly alone.

 But there was another presence in the room.  We had called our close family friend and Rabbi earlier that day, and he came to us in the middle of the night.  I honestly cannot remember what he said. But I do remember feeling as though I was standing at the edge of the abyss, staring into blackness.  His gentle touch somehow made me feel like I was not completely alone.  He could not take away the pain, no one could. But the echoes of the psalm reverberated in my mind; someone was beside me as I began to walk in that very dark valley. Rabbi’s presence helped me to begin the process of grieving her loss, then picking up the pieces and beginning to move forward.

 My work as a hospital chaplain and as a rabbi has given me many opportunities to be with people in their time special time of grief, vulnerability or need.  I am privileged to offer this wonderful gift to others.  But it is not a gift limited only to rabbis.  We all have the potential to reach out to others in profound and meaningful ways. We offer ourselves to be present, to listen, to make a meal, to call a couple of weeks later just to check in, these are extraordinary ways that each of us can make an important impact on another’s life.  At the time when a person feels most isolated, we can reassure them that they are not alone.