A New Chapter In Grief And Mourning
I’m in the middle of the second year of my son’s passing. Until now, I thought about Jacob constantly. From the time I awoke in the morning until the time I went to bed at night, my thoughts were on him. Now, for some reason, I don’t think about him as often. Why is that? Has the passage of time changed anything? Am I ready for a new stage in grief?
Grief Is Like An Ocean Wave
It’s not that the grief has lessened. Grief comes in waves like water washing over a rocky shore. Sometimes, there’s hardly a wave at all. The water comes in gently, going around the rocks and boulders. Other times, a small wave rolls in and splashes over the rocks, entering into every rocky nook and cranny. Then other times, the wave is much larger, slamming into the rocks. Water and spume fly upward. Then all that water comes crashing down onto the rocks and wet sand.
My grief is divided into three parts. When there’s not much of a wave, I call that my numb mode. I’m in this mode around thirty-five percent of the time. I go about my day to day stuff trying to fool myself into thinking that Jacob is at school, or at work, or traveling, or living away from home. That must be why he’s not here. He must be really busy. That’s why he doesn’t call.
Then there are times when a small wave rolls in. I call this my intellectual mode. This mode is active around sixty percent of the time. I have to stop fooling myself. My son passed away and there’s nothing I can do to change that. It’s G-d’s will. Jacob finished his mission in this world and has moved on to the next. I just have to find a way to live with it.
Sometimes, the large wave comes crashing in. I call this my panic mode. I’m in this mode five percent of the time. Oh my G-d, he’s not here! I have flashbacks to that terrible morning he passed away. All the imagery from that day keeps flooding back. Rivers of tears flow from my eyes. Fortunately, these intense feelings only last for a few minutes.
Contradictory Feelings About Grief and Grieving
At this point in my life, I have opposing feelings about grief and grieving. Why can’t I be in intellectual mode one-hundred percent of the time, calmly accepting G-d’s will and wisdom? Is there some lack of faith on my part if I’m still panicking and crying?
Then there’s going to the cemetery. I don’t want to go, and I don’t want not to go. When I go to the cemetery, I stand by Jacob’s grave saying Tehillim. With tears streaming down my face, I talk to him. I tell him I love him and miss him. Jewish tradition says that when we visit the gravesite, the departed person comes to visit with us and wants us to be happy. Jacob wants me to be happy.
I read an article by Hindel Swerdlov that appeared in Our Tapestry magazine. She related an anecdote about Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz who was cautioning her to limit her visits to the cemetery. Rabbi Steinsaltz said that going too often was comparable to a mother speaking to her son, bemoaning how good life was before he moved away and got married. By going to his grave I feel I’m making him sad, dragging him back to this world and showing him I’m miserable.
On the other hand, if I don’t go at all, I feel bad and I’m afraid he’ll think I’ve forgotten him.
The Gemara On Mourning Has A Message For Me
(From Bava Batra 60b): There were people who mourned over the Temple’s destruction so greatly that they distanced themselves from physical pleasure. Rabbi Yehoshua asked them why they were neither eating meat nor drinking wine. They replied that meat and wine was offered on the Temple altar. Now that the Temple is gone, how can one eat meat or drink wine?
Rabbi Yehoshua responded that, since meal offerings were also offered on the altar, one should not eat bread either. These ascetics said that they would just eat fruit.
Rabbi Yehoshua pointed out that the first fruits on Shavuot were also brought to the altar. Therefore, one should not partake of fruit. They replied that they would not eat fruit.
Rabbi Yehoshua then said that since the water libation performed on Sukkot has also ceased, one should not drink water. Because one cannot exist without water, they saw the wisdom in Rabbi Yehoshua’s response.
To Mourn Or Not To Mourn
Rabbi Yehoshua told these people that not to mourn is impossible. But to mourn excessively is also impossible, and he told them what our Sages said. When plastering one’s home, leave a small amount unfinished. When preparing a meal for yourselves, omit one item. A woman who uses cosmetics should leave out one item. All these things will cause one to remember the Temple’s destruction.
Rabbi Yehoshua is saying that one should follow a middle path. Many years later, the Rambam would say the same thing. I’m trying to reach this middle path, an intellectual mode of grief described earlier. I need to shed the numbness and panic that have characterized my grief until now. If I can do this, it will bring me to a point where I can acknowledge Jacob’s passing while living a productive life, caring about others, and thinking less about me.
Yes, I should go to the cemetery. That’s what people do to honor a loved one. Yes, I should cry, but not too long or too often. Yes, at times I should think about him and find ways to honor his memory in this world. This is what I should do. I only hope, with time, I’ll succeed.