Recently, a friend’s father died suddenly, and I found out a few days later through a mass email that one of her friends sent around. Reading about it, I felt like I was being punched in the gut. Another one of my friends joining the horrible club of those saying Kaddish, and mourning a parent at a young age. The minyan I attend most mornings has gotten a few recent additions because of a death in the community, and children who have joined us for their year of avelut. One of the newest faces at shacharit is only a few years older than me. I haven’t been able to look him in the eye yet.
I have always been fiercely protective of my friends (something I certainly learned from my mother) and in the face of grief, though I know I’m powerless, I still want to somehow cover these people in a bubble of safety and tranquility. (This is a concept not foreign to Jewish ideology. At Ma’ariv we ask god to ‘spread over us Your shelter of peace…shield us from enemies and pestilence, from starvation, sword and sorrow’ (u’fros aleinu sukkat shlomekha…v’haser m’aleinu oyev, dever, v’herev v’ra’av v’yagon.)
While I was sitting shiva a friend of mine (whose own father had died only six months earlier) came to be with me, and memorably stood right in front of me with arms crossed, looking appropriately menacing, so as to dissuade people from coming over to make me cry any more than I already was. I wish I could do the same for all of my friends who are suddenly in this situation. I’d like to be there, physically, to protect them, but metaphysically, too. I think constantly about building some kind of magical force field that would prevent others from joining this miserable community.
And then there are the surreal moments where I am grateful for my horrible lot. Sometimes this comes while hearing about others going through struggles that are far more terrible and heartbreaking than mine. Young mothers who die suddenly, leaving infants, those with missing children, or babies undergoing grueling and unsuccessful treatment for cancer and other diseases. It’s true when they say that it could always be worth, and I do, somewhat grotesquely, feel lucky to have had the opportunity to say goodbye to my mother, to hold her hand while she slipped away from us, to care from her in the months leading up to her death. More often than not, though, when I find myself feeling grateful it’s because I have somehow been given access to this community of strong young people, who are able, despite horrible circumstances, to go on and build lives of success and happiness. People who are compassionate beyond their years, who are good listeners, and deep thinkers, and care for others in a way that embodies grace and love. Given the option, I would still wish to be ignorant of these people, to live without this all-encompassing grief. But if I have to be here, I’m so glad to be surrounded with good company.
(The photo is from a family trip to England in 1988. I was 3, Deena was 6, and Renana was in utero.)