Tag Archives: nichum aveilim

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.

Shiva at the Diner

 One of the most difficult things we experience is the loss of a loved one. Death takes them away from us. We struggle with our new reality, whether the loss was sudden or even if it was expected, the moment of truth is not as expected.

 Death is a complicated emotional process in which we experience loss, then grief and then we try to move forward. Jewish tradition gives us some wonderful coping mechanisms that acknowledge and honor the departed, our relationship to that person and a means of working through the loss.

 When we attempt to circumvent or short-circuit the process we lose out. In our fast paced world, we want to “get it over with,” and move on. I frequently hear the need to return to work, which is more a desperate attempt to escape the discomfort of the current situation and not deal with it. Some of us suppress or even ignore our feelings attempting to deny the pain, leaving things unresolved. Our feelings will however come back to haunt us. A perfunctory approach does not serve us well. Our hearts just do not work that way. Judaism has a better way to deal.

 Shiva, the traditional Jewish mourning period, is seven days (the word Shiva is Hebrew for seven). It is tempting to shorten this period to a three-day Shiva, or even a one-day observance. I did once hear of a family that decided they would sit Shiva Saturday night at the Italian restaurant/diner. These recastings of Shiva are reflections of everything but the acknowledgement of a profound loss and the grieving process that accompanies such a loss. Sadly, the people who survive are the ones who suffer as a result.

 Our Jewish tradition wisely helps guide the survivors through the process. You quite literally sit with your grief, fully acknowledging this place and the loss. Your family, friends and the community gathers to support you in your time of aloneness to share that indeed you are not alone. You experience what we all will experience and we are both connected and strengthened by this knowledge. By being together we say you will get through this with our support and love. The community continues to show its support and love through the institution of the synagogue as a place where you can find not only solace but a caring community that can help you reintegrate as the immediacy of the pain begins to find a place in your heart rather than on your sleeve.

 There is joy in life and pain in its loss. How we navigate these is what family, friends and community is all about. The traditional Hebrew phrase we share with someone who experiences a loss might be translated as: “May you find comfort in this place among family and friends.” This is among the values that makes embracing Judaism something sacred and profound.

Klinghoffer Continued

In response to my teacher and friend who posted a comment on my last submission on “The Death of Klinghoffer”

 My quarrel is with the Met not the writer of Klinghoffer.

I am a defender of free speech even when that includes writing something reprehensible. I recall the Nazis marching in Skokie and the right of these evil hate-mongers to spout their bile. My commitment this core constitutional and human value required I defend the right to march in the public space of the town even though the march was designed to promote hate and incite anger due to the venue. But the Met is different.

The Met has selectively and deliberately decided to produce Klinghoffer. This season there are 24 productions, six (6) new and 18 revivals. The names include: Mozart, Bizet, Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Bartok, Shostakovich, Donizetti, Wagner, Lehar and Offenbach. Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is also on the schedule for a bit of fun and amusing fare. And then there is John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer.” It is outrageously conspicuous. For an institution of the Met’s esteem, the choices it makes for its productions are important sending a message to the world. The Met sullies her reputation and gives an imprimatur of respectability to this work by producing it without regard to the repercussions.

 I do not usually stand on the side of censorship. And in fact, I am not. I would be deeply offended if some lesser institution, the off-Broadway equivalent of the Met, were to produce Klinghoffer. But I probably would not be adamantly opposed. I am struggling with the fact that I have not actually seen Klinghoffer and yet I have taken a stand against its’ production. I accept the inherent problem with my situation.

 I guess the immediate contrast would be to argue that I would see Richard Strauss’ Salome at the Met. It too has outrageous and highly provocative material. For a substantial amount of time, it was banned- sometimes due to the sexuality involved sometimes due to the depravity involved, sometimes due to a combination of both. Ultimately, Straus’ gravitas forced people to give it the benefit of the doubt. Adams has a few noted pieces in his repertoire and has earned critical acclaim. However, at this stage, I am not prepared to put John Adams and Richard Strauss in the same category.

So I conclude that this is a very bad misstep for the Met. It is inappropriate and unworthy. The subject is vile and contemptible. The production almost seems like a gratuitous attempt to be controversial and relevant. But it is not. It is merely offensive, inappropriate and wrong. I understand that Peter Gelb (the Met) and Abe Foxman (ADL) have been working together to lessen the impact of this production. I probably will need to experience this opera to better understand it, which may alter my opinion. But for now, the Met would have served all of us including itself better were Klinghoffer not part of this season’s lineup.

Presence is an active not passive activity

 We think of “being present” for the other as being available to hear them and be with them.  We say we reach out to them but often we are really offering to wait for them to come to us.  I have learned that is not enough.  Offering to be there is a far cry from going to where they are.   And I have also learned that when someone needs another, they rarely have the presence of mind to reach out to someone else, instead they are trapped, caught in a place of aloneness.

 A friend recently lost a son, a tragedy that words cannot adequately describe.  He was loved by many, as was his mother, my friend.  People packed both the funeral and the Shiva minyanim, expressing their love and support.  At one minyan, I approached my friend and I said in earnest, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” She responded, “Thanks, you’re the third rabbi who has made that offer tonight.”  She was appreciative, but her  matter-of-fact response was very instructive.

 Two weeks later I called her.  She had heard that I weaved the story of her son into a sermon and was overflowing with gratitude that I had remembered her and him.  The simple act of making a phone call, reaching out to her, rather than sitting waiting for her to call me, was received as a profound gesture of caring.  In those few minutes I truly did something important and meaningful.  I went to her and provided comfort.  Realistically, she never would have called me, and it was unrealistic for me to think otherwise. She was unable to reach out to me.  Whether we are providing pastoral care or being a friend, it is what we do that makes the difference in the lives of others.

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.