This article appeared in the December, 2021 issue of The Scroll.
In the last three weeks or so, I have been involved with six different grieving families. It started with the passing of our beloved friend, Jules Stern, and followed quickly from there. My daughter-in-law lost her grandmother. A friend of mine lost his mother. You get the idea. The passings happened in rapid order with almost no time to really absorb each one.
I don’t really believe I have experienced that much death in such a short time. Each time there were responsibilities to be fulfilled: services, Shiva visits, etc.
But here’s the interesting point. One might think that seeing six families you care about in pain happen in such a short time might have a negative effect. But, during this time I realized something pretty incredible, and that is what I want to share with you this month.
In an Orthodox home, a Shiva normally works like this. The mourners stay in the home during the entire Shiva, with the exception of Shabbat when they go to services in Shule. The door to the home opens with Shacharit services and stays open all day. The front door remains unlocked and visitors stream in throughout the day. When a visitor comes in, they sit down quietly and do not say anything until the mourner acknowledges them first. The mourner doesn’t greet people in a usual manner. All in all, it is meant to be a solemn affair as one would expect.
And yet, I have heard the greatest laughter come from Shiva houses. When families remember their loved ones, they tell stories. Inevitably, their favorite stories get told and retold and the humorous aspects of their relationships with their loved ones take center stage. One might expect someone with Rabbinic training to look askance at such doings in a house of mourning, but I take the opposite approach. The laughter at the Shiva house is different than normal laughter. It is a cleansing, healing laughter. The more we remember the good times with our loved ones, the more we internalize a basic, universal truth: the pain we feel when we lose someone we love is the price we pay for the years of joy and love we shared with them.
Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein popularized the economic acronym TANSTAAFL: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Everything has a cost to it. We may not think about it that way but it really is true. There is a cost, even in the realm of human relationships and emotions. Whenever you make a friend, you are opening yourself up to potential pain and disappointment on many levels. The deeper the friendship, the greater the danger and potential cost. It’s just the nature of the beast.
Love and Pain are two sides of the same coin.
When a parent raises a child, they are in for pain no matter what they do. Even if things go perfectly (and no child’s upbringing is ever perfect), the child will someday leave the home and strike out on their own. And that hurts. While, on the one hand, we are filled with joy and pride at their growth and accomplishments, we are also sad because the hugs are not there as readily, because we hear from them less, because we are no longer prime in their lives.
I am reminded of a poem I wrote almost 40 years ago. Don’t ask me where an 18-year-old got the inspiration for this but I wrote it and have never forgotten it:
The sound of laughter, the sound of tears
Sounds that I heard for so many years
Of children laughing and running at play
I had no peace, not once in a day
STOP! I would shout and hope they would heed
And give me the silence I so sorely need
But the children, those monsters, they all had their way
And gave me no peace, not once in a day
Oh! Would they begone! I would hope and dream
Or there will be no peace, or so it would seem
But it never happened, what can I say?
So, I had no peace, not once in a day
Now they are gone, those children so bold
and the house seems so empty, so lonely, and old
Oh! would they return, I would like them to stay
And give me no peace, not once in a day
No, nothing in life is free. Raising children is hard but we do it because of our love for them. Then they move on to their own lives and we are left with an empty nest. It can be difficult at times.
Of course, even the cost has an upside. When the children come home from university, or when you visit them there, it is all the sweeter. When they get married and, with G-d’s help, raise a family, there are grandchildren to jump all over you and rifle through your pockets looking for the inevitable gift they expect Zaydi and Bobbi to bring them. There are the smiles and laughter of family smachot, dinners, Shabbatot and Chagim, etc. All of this is part of the double-sided coin we call life.
The beginning of December is host to Chanukah when we celebrate the Hasmonean victory over the Greek empire that guaranteed our religious freedom. We celebrate the victory, but do we think about the costs that went into that victory? No battle is without casualties and no victory is free. Yet, we focus on the positive aspects because that is what we should do with life. Yes, love costs us dearly when that love is taken from us. Does that mean we should shy away from love? Or should we, rather, seek out more love to sustain us during the hard times?
I can’t speak for you but I will opt for as much love as I can get. I want as much good and, when tragedy befalls me as it must in this life, I pray that Hashem gives me the strength to lean on those I love and to focus on what I have and had, not what I lost.
Not a day goes by that I do not think of my parents. But, I choose to focus on what I have from them, not on the fact that they are not here. Just as we celebrate the victory of Chanukah, let us celebrate the loves we have enjoyed and remember the loves we lost not because they are not here but because of the great gifts of love they gave us. We are richer for these loves and that richness never leaves us.
Chana and I wish you a happy and joyous Chanukah. May the light of the Menorahs fill your homes with warmth, light, and love.