Walking Together Through the “Valley of the Shadow of Death”

It seems almost a cliché to be sitting here writing about death, here in Boston with eight feet of snow pressing in on all sides, the bitter winter winds howling just outside my windows. But if seemingly endless winter can inspire the Russians to create such darkly beautiful literature, perhaps it can work its magic on me as well.

I lost my friend Eric* last summer, in June, when the sunshine and warmth barely let the fact of his death seem real. Yet despite the world’s apparent lightness, Eric had ultimately been defeated by darkness. Depression had led to substance abuse had led to a death that was in some way a mysterious product of them both. It was hard to believe he was gone. Our five-year college reunion had been barely a month before, and the memories of holding his hand and laughing as we lay on the warm grass of our campus green were fresh in my mind. Eric was always reaching for your hand, as if he wanted to secure your being-there, forever. Yet gone he was, suddenly, and surely.

It was surprising to me how lost I felt after his death. I didn’t know what to say, or do. I was bewildered about how I was supposed to go about my normal life with him gone. How could I have a conversation with people who had never known him, and now never would? How could I walk down the street in a world he no longer inhabited?

I became a Jew for many reasons, but one of them is that I am a creature of ritual. Whether it is a secular ritual like happy hour with my coworkers, or a religious ritual like lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday evening, I find security and meaning in walking the well-trodden paths of those who have come before me. After Eric’s death, though, I had no ritual. He was not a family member. He was not Jewish, like me; nor I Catholic, like him. There were no words, no prayers, no actions I was required to say or do. There was nothing to anchor me in the days that floated past.

Soon after his death, my girlfriends from college and I met online for a Google Hangout. We had been alone in our grief, spread out across the country for school, family, and work. Yet when we came together (albeit virtually), it reminded me that we were not truly alone. We shared memories about Eric and admitted how much we had been crying. We said how much we loved each other and promised to keep in touch, to try and stave off the loneliness that had plagued Eric. We shared how we had been trying to honor his memory. One friend said she would light a candle on the week anniversary of his death. We all said we would, too—trying to shed a little light in a dark time. And through that conversation—through that modern, secular, coming-together—we created a new ritual.

I write this now because as a convert to Judaism, I have, thank G-d, had no occasion to observe the traditional Jewish mourning rituals. My grandparents who passed away during college were Christian, and at that time, so was I. Since converting four years ago, I have (again, thank G-d) not lost anyone in my family. It was only last week when I first participated in the Jewish practices of mourning. A friend from my synagogue had lost his father—diagnosed with cancer on Tuesday, and gone by Friday. In Judaism, if one’s parent, sibling, spouse, or child, dies, the mourner “sits shiva” for seven days. Any activity that causes joy (going to parties, sexual relations, studying Torah, etc.) is prohibited. Mirrors are covered. Mourners sit on low stools and wear torn clothes. A yahrzeit (memorial) candle is lit. The world stops, for one week, so that one’s grief can be deeply felt. In addition, the mourner is responsible for a daily recitation of the “Mourner’s Kaddish” (an Aramaic prayer honoring the glory of G-d) for each of the seven days of shiva. Many religions have prayers associated with mourning, but Judaism is unique in that this prayer cannot be said alone. A minyan (a quorum of ten adult Jews) must be present for the mourner to say Kaddish. Therefore, last Monday, despite a blizzard that had shut down Boston’s public transit and, effectively, the city, my husband and I piled on layers of mittens and hats and made our way to our friend’s apartment across town. As we listened to him clearly, deliberately, annunciate the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish (“Yitgadal ve-yitkadash, Shmei rabbah–May His name be magnified and made holy…. “) I was struck by the significance of this particular moment of being-together.

Death is frightening in its isolation. The deceased leaves this world, alone, and friends and family are profoundly aware of the void that he or she left behind. Just as my girlfriends and I instinctively drew together after Eric’s death, struggling in our modern way to create meaning out of tragedy, so too Jewish tradition recognizes and honors the needs of mourners to simply be with others. If halakha (Jewish law) had not persuaded, coerced, demanded nine of us to travel to our friend’s apartment that snowy night, would we have gone? Or would we have made our excuses and left him to be alone?

Community is integral to surviving grief. Surrounding ourselves with love, with life, reminds us that we are not truly alone. Even in the midst of what can feel like the darkest of days, a friend can be a beacon of light. Let us not forget our ability to be a candle in someone else’s dark night—no matter how cold or bleak it is outside.

*Name has been changed.

“Yahrtzeit candle” by Elipongo – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yahrtzeit_candle.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Yahrtzeit_candle.JPG

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