Yom Kippur Yizkor Sermon 5778
September 30, 2017
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen
Let Me Not Die While I am Still Alive
“Let me not die while I am still alive,” a prayer possibly uttered by Hannah when she prayed in the Temple of Shiloh for a child. So desperate and inconsolable in her grief of not being able to conceive, her silent prayer misunderstood by the priest who assumed she was a drunkard. But could anyone really understand her grief? It was all consuming.
Death can be all consuming for the living. We lose our breath, our ability to think clearly – it constricts our every muscle and thought. There is a void and it’s easy to stay lost in that void.
Grief is very personal, yet at the same time, in Jewish tradition we hope to not allow it to be a solitary moment. From the time we learn of a death, we reach out, we bring food, we help the family prepare the house for shiva and the visitors who hope to come and offer words of comfort. And while there are sometimes concerns about if the house can really hold that many people, the walls all seem to expand. After shiva, the first seven days after a funeral, we can return to our daily activities, but there is still sheloshim, the first 30 days in which we acknowledge that the wound of loss is still very fresh; and then shanah, the first year during which we have to experience all the firsts, the first birthdays, anniversaries and holidays without our beloved. Unfortunately, after that first week, the outpouring of love and visitors diminishes and we are left alone with our thoughts and loneliness – “let me not die while I am still alive.”
As those who are experiencing the grief of our friends or loved ones, we wonder, how can we care for them? What can we say? What can we do? I get these calls all the time. “Rabbi, I want to make sure I do the right thing.” Or, “Rabbi, what am I supposed to say?”
There are times that words can’t possible express our love and support for those in times of loss. I am especially challenged with, what do you say to a family whose 16-year-old daughter just died for no reason? The autopsy report is still inconclusive and they may never know why. The family of Hillary Moss are grieving as no family should. To lose a child is painful enough, but often we hear about this type of loss because of disease or a tragic accident. There are answers, although not any more comforting, in these losses. But there are no answers for why Hillary died. And this pain is raw and real. And the over 1000 mourners who were there as she was buried all asked the same question, “Why!?!?” struggling in that moment. They struggled because no one had any idea how to approach or comfort this grieving family. And honestly, there is no formula for grief and comfort, only experience and even missteps that become lessons.
Hillary’s mom, Nancy, has been so public in her mourning on Facebook and grateful for the love and support. To be honest, I have no idea how she is able to write some of the posts she shares. Nor should I have any idea, thank God, I have never personally experienced the loss she has. But what can we do for her? What can we do for each other when there is a death, when there is loss, when there is loneliness? “let me not die while I am still alive.”
Often, we try to tell someone, everything will be ok. You’ll get through this. You’re strong. We want to offer hope at times of loss. But is it really going to be ok? I once heard someone share how a dear friend dying of cancer said, ‘the worse thing someone can say to me is, it’ll be ok.’ How do they know it’s going to be ok? And is it really going to be ok? Is dying ok? Real empathy can be acknowledging that it’s not going to be ok.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook wrote after her husband Dave suddenly died when they were on vacation in Mexico: “When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, ‘my husband died a month ago, how do you think I am?’ When I hear ‘How are you today?’ I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.”
How do we approach you who have lost someone? What do we say? How do we act? Do we mention your loss or do we try to ignore it because maybe you don’t want to talk about it?
At the end of sheloshim, Sheryl wrote a manifesto on mourning, a letter to her tens of thousands of friends and followers. It’s a beautiful letter that subsequent to writing through her year of mourning has now grown into a book, “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.”
In her original letter, Sheryl observed “[that] when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning.”
Sheryl went on to discover three important lessons that are critical to resilience.
- Personalization – realizing it is not my fault.
- Permanence – remembering that I won’t feel like this forever.
- Pervasiveness – this does not have to affect every area of my life; the ability to compartmentalize is healthy.
In an interview for the cover of Time Magazine, Sheryl explained that the lessons didn’t come easily. She realized that she had to ban the word ‘sorry’ from her vocabulary.
Her tendency to apologize was the result of an unexpected symptom of her grief: Sheryl completely lost her selfconfidence. “It just kind of crumbled in every area,” she says. “I didn’t think I could be a good friend. I didn’t feel like I could do my job.” She wasn’t even sure she could look after her grieving kids.
On her first day back at work, she says, she fell asleep in a meeting, rambled and misidentified a colleague, then left at 2 p.m. to pick up her kids from school. That evening she called Mark Zuckerberg to see if she should even be there. “Mark said, ‘Take the time off you need,’” says Sheryl. “And that’s what I would have said to someone in the same situation. But then he said, ‘Actually I’m really glad you were here today. You made two really good points—here’s what they were.’”
That small vote of confidence led to one of the biggest changes Sheryl made in her management style: she no longer automatically diverts work from people facing personal adversity. Now she asks if they want to do it because, counterintuitively, relieving people of some of their responsibilities could mean denying them a way of finding their bearings. “Let me not die while I am still alive,”
Once again, the way through trauma is to find meaning. Not in our suffering but to find meaning in our living. What are we really here for? Life is finite, no one knows that more acutely than a mourner – so what do we do with the time we have? After a loss, we talk about the new normal. The experiences that we will now have without our loved ones or our friends who are now gone. Those experiences were Option A – everything we plan to do with that person but now that option no longer exists. Option A is missing the moments in life that we hoped we would have more of with someone. Option A is a Bar Mitzvah, a wedding, a graduation, seeing the next generation born. But option A is no longer an option. We now have to find option B.
Sheryl shared how a few weeks after her husband David died, there was a father-child event at the kids’ school, and a friend proposed designating a stand-in dad. Sheryl protested that it wasn’t the same as having David there. The friend put his arm around her. “Option A is not available,” he said. “So let’s just kick the crap out of Option B.”
Those who have come today to say kaddish for loved ones are all living Option B. This was not what was planned – even if we all knew as sure as the sun rises and sets that death is unavoidable – it’s as certain as anything in life. But when death comes we are unprepared.
Death is harder on those who are living. It is hard without a soulmate, a Mom, a Dad, siblings or God forbid, a child, for that is not supposed to be the order of the universe.
Personalization – It is not your fault. Death is a guarantee in life and we can’t let a death penetrate us so much that we forget the times shared, the moments of memory so precious. We shared our lives with them in the best way we could. And we take the opportunity now to allow them to live on in memory and build on the relationships with those who live amongst us today.
Permanence – you won’t feel like this forever. Take comfort in knowing that you are surrounded at this moment by so many others who understand grief and the valley of shadows. Yes, take moments to grieve but don’t forget to experience all the beauty life has to offer. Life is meant to be lived and experienced. Isn’t that what our loved ones who are no longer here would have wanted for us?
Pervasiveness – this does not have to effect every aspect of your life; the ability to compartmentalize is healthy. What can you learn from these moments of grief? What are the stories and traditions you promise to hold on to and carry as a blessing in your life? And don’t forget to live your life exposed to the sun and sky, not within the shadows of death.
“Let me not die while I am still alive,” a prayer calling out in the midst of grief in the hope of living. It does not diminish our grief but it reminds us that we are alive and there is still so much living left for us to do even as we carry the memories of our loved ones close to our hearts. As we remember during these moments of yizkor, let us also breathe and live for that is truly the gift our loved ones who are no longer here with us ask us to do – live, for life is a gift.