Monday, April 23, 2007

Life in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Grief is an uncomfortable suit; no one knows how to wear it properly.

Some friends callously urge the mourners right after *shiva “to move on with life”. The mourners are pressured to do things they are not emotionally ready for, like get rid of clothing, go out and party, and smile all the time. These friends, unable to deal with their companions’ grief, just want the mourners to act as if nothing happened.

On the other hand, some mourners can’t let go. Because mourning is an act of respect for the dead, it can become a prison: either you experience the pain of mourning, or the pain of feeling guilty for not mourning. Every smile feels like an act of disrespect to the deceased.

The upshot of all this is that grief becomes a minefield of emotional contradictions. What the Book of Psalms calls “the valley of the shadow of death” is a place where every smile and every sob has complex meaning.

But everyone must try navigate this minefield. Susie Weiss, in an article in today’s Jerusalem Post, writes about one such attempt, for families like hers, the families of fallen Israeli soldiers:

It was the first day of the Pessah vacation……As we go through our morning routine, my 13-year-old daughter, Ayelet, is particularly excited today as she anticipates quality time with Mom, at the Luna Park in Tel Aviv. Bubbie, visiting from the States for the Pessah holiday, cannot for the life of her understand how I have nothing better to do today than go to an amusement park with my daughter. "Doesn't she have girlfriends she can go with?" I'm lectured.

Fortunately, Ayelet has no girlfriends who can share this Fun Day with her at the Luna Park. Today is strictly for siblings of fallen soldiers, sponsored by the Israel Defense Forces, at no charge to the participants…….

So off we marched. As I was dragged from one stomach-churning ride to another, the scene before us was surreal. The place was packed with kids and families, as well as soldiers who work with bereaved families. The IDF marching band was winding its way around the park throughout the day while costumed dancers and entertainers spoiled the kids with prizes, balloons and candy. Children and adults from all segments of society - including several Druse families - had their hands full of cotton candy, stuffed animals and food, running madly from ride to ride, packing in as much as possible in this one magical day.

MY HEAD was spinning with this scene of a typical day at the amusement park, yet I knew that each and every one of us was here for the same grim reason: Each of us will soon weep at our son's or brother's grave on Remembrance Day. Ari was our ticket for the day, and I hated it. Who were we all fooling?

Susie’s visit to the amusement park was filled with ambivalence. How can you party in a graveyard?

But she went to the amusement park anyway, along with hundreds of other families. At times, grief is the greatest honor one can give to the deceased. We literally stop our lives to sit and cry, paralyzed by overwhelming pain.

But at some point, we start to honor the dead by living. We continue to live because we must, and because every day appreciated and enjoyed is a tribute to those who have left us.

Or, as Susie puts it:

The army wants to make sure that bereaved siblings growing up in the shadow of their fallen brothers and sisters are not neglected or pushed aside by eternally grieving parents.

They are entitled to have some fun too, in spite of the tragedy that has touched their lives…....

Of course, while one can honor the dead by living, you still cry anyway. Susie concludes by writing:

Taking the bus home, exhausted, loaded with souvenirs and still nauseous from all the "fun" rides, Ayelet thanks me for a wonderful day. I feel bad when the tears well up in my eyes as I tell her to rest on the bus ride home. She knows all too well that Fun Day is over - it's time to return to Life.

Today, on Israel’s Memorial Day, my heart goes out to all those who live life in the valley of the shadow of death. May God stand with them, today and always.

* Shiva = the Jewish seven day mourning period following the death of a family member

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