Tag Archives: healing from grief

Condolences

by Rita Plush (New York, NY)

People have surprised me since my son died—and not always in a good way. Some of those I thought would be there with a note, a call, a “How’re you doing?” have fallen by the wayside. Yet others I hardly knew have reached out in a most caring way. One such person called out, “Rita?” as I was leaving the synagogue one Saturday. 

Never having spoken, I knew this man only by sight. And name, if I could ever recall it.

He told me he had read an article I wrote about my son’s death (such a terrible and final word) when I had volunteered as a phone friend to an elderly shut-in as a way of reaching out to someone instead of wallowing in my sorrow. The man offered his condolences. But I sensed in his manner, in his almost hesitant way of speaking, that there might be more on his mind. I waited a beat and he asked if I had a minute, or did I have to get going? I said I had time.  

He shared that his father had died when he was five and a half, and his mother when he was 21. 

“Everyone has their own grief,” I said. “That must have been very difficult for you.” 

I wondered if this was going to be one of those conversations—if you can call it that—where people insist their grief is just like yours, or tell you about someone who has it worse than you (no one has it worse when you lose a child!). Or what you should be doing to get out of your funk.

But then, as if not to take anything away from my suffering, he said, “Losing a child is the greatest loss of all.” He was glad I had come to services and not stayed home brooding, grieving alone. It was important to get out, he said. To be with others, to socialize. “It’s key in the healing process.”

It’s also key in Jewish tradition to perform acts of kindness. The 12th-century sage Moses Maimonides wrote that by comforting mourners you fulfill the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. My neighbor was doing just that. 

“I hope you don’t think I’m preaching or telling you what to do,” he said. “I’m just passing on what worked for me.” 

“Not at all,” I said, taken with his compassion.  

There had been mentors, he said: a neighbor, an uncle, later on teachers, role models who shaped him and became important in his life. A job well done, I thought, considering how he had sought me out, a stranger, to comfort. 

We stood there talking by the exit door but I don’t recall seeing anyone come or go, so absorbed I was in our exchange. And though he spoke more than I, it wasn’t a me, me, me assault. An us talk is what it was. One sufferer (he) trying to make another (me), feel better in the most sincere way. 

How kind. How lovely. How a five-minute conversation, if it was that long, cut to the heart of things. 

“You’re Sam, right?” 

He nodded.  

“Thank you, Sam.” 

He reached out his hand to me. I could feel the slight damp. This had not been an easy talk for him. Then gently, almost shyly, as if the gesture might be too familiar, he drew me in. It did not occur to me then how much I disliked being touched by strange men. Perhaps because it was I who was the stranger, and he had welcomed me, as the Torah says one should. So that when he brought me closer and his cheek tapped mine, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. A complete understanding of what had passed between us.

Rita Plush is the author of the novels Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches memoir at Queensborough Community College and the Fire Island School, Continuing Ed. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Down in the Dirt, Potato Soup Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Backchannels, LochRaven, Kveller, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Broadkill Review, Avalon Literary Review, Jewish Week, and The Best of Potato Soup 2020. 

If you’d like to read more about Rita and her work, visit her website: https://ritaplush.com

4 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

The Siddur’s Healing Power

By Paula Jacobs (Framingham, MA)

It looks like any ordinary prayer book: blue cover, plain lettering, traditional Jewish prayers, and printed in the USA. While the prayer book has bound Jews throughout the world for centuries, I never imagined that an ordinary siddur would transform my pain to healing, while teaching me the real meaning of connection and community.

When I was reciting kaddish for my father at my synagogue’s daily minyan many years ago, the prayer book became my daily companion as a source of solace and cherished memories. During my kaddish year, the siddur linked me to generations past throughout the Jewish calendar cycle. As I prayed, memories flowed, reminding me of family holiday dinners, Chanukah parties, Purim celebrations, and more.

Through the prayer book, I gained a profound, lasting appreciation for the value of a prayer community. Granted, when I began attending minyan, I initially struggled with some of the communal customs: rapid-fire recitation aloud of certain prayers, calling out the page number before the Aleinu prayer, and light bantering during the services. Sometimes I lost patience with leaders who davened too slowly or too fast, made Hebrew mistakes, or chanted off key.

But the siddur taught me what truly counts, what community is all about, and how to appreciate the uniqueness of each individual created in the image of God. By praying in community, I learned the invaluable lesson to appreciate fully the humanity of those with whom we pray and the intrinsic value of participating in something greater than ourselves.

Once I understood that important lesson, I began to heal. I also decided to help other community members heal by creating a ceremony to mark the end of kaddish. This ceremony features the presentation of a siddur signed by minyan members, symbolizing the community’s support role during the year of aveilut or mourning.  

As I continue to conduct this ceremony 18 years later, I am grateful that the siddur keeps me connected to community. It’s something I think about whenever I present a siddur to a community member and whenever mourners share their personal stories or photographs and memorabilia with the entire minyan community after receiving their siddur.

I am also grateful that the siddur has connected me to a story greater than my own. As I reflect upon the more than 200 stories I have heard, I recall the nonagenarian who died surrounded by his loving children and grandchildren; the father who sent his young children alone from Cuba to make a new life in America; the 20-something widowed mother who became a successful business-woman; the first-generation American who became a judge; the Holocaust survivor who built a new life and family in America; the elderly father who fulfilled his lifelong dream of making aliyah; and other family members who left behind a legacy of treasured memories.

I look at the signatures of those who signed my siddur when I finished saying kaddish. I see the faces of those who stood beside me as we recited the Mourners Kaddish: the young woman mourning her mother, the elderly man reciting kaddish for his late wife, and others who have since moved away or passed on. We were once strangers but through death our lives have become intertwined. And it is the ancient Jewish prayer book that has bound us eternally together and enabled us to heal.

Paula Jacobs writes about Jewish culture, religion, and Israel. Her articles have appeared in such publications as Tablet Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, and The Forward.  If you’d like to read more about the ceremony that she created to mark the end of Kaddish, visit  https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/traveling-mourners-path

2 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism