Can Reading Salve Grief?

Death as a physical phenomenon is easy to comprehend; certain bodily functions, necessary for life, cease. On other levels—emotional, philosophical, and theological— death is harder to understand. Some deaths, which come at the end of fully led lives, arc easier to accept. Other deaths, sudden violent events that claim young lives, such as accidents, murder or suicide, are harder to justify or explain.

My father died one of those sudden, violent deaths, at the age of 48, two years ago. I have spent those two years trying to make sense of his death. Like other mourners, I have turned to my family and to other people who have shared my experiences. I have turned to rabbis and, more generally, to Judaism. I have also turned to counselors and their avatars, grief books,

Looking lo books for comfort and answers is similar to looking towards religion. Mourners seek a reflection of their own specific experience within a logical framework. For those who survive a loss, a tragic death challenges faith in the world as a good place. We want to understand what has happened to our loved one in the context of a world we can participate in positively, constructively, even joyfully.

I have come to realize that my search for comfort and answers leads me to ask questions about the presence of evil in the world. Where is God in all of this? How can tragedies like my father’s suicide happen if God is in charge of the world? How can I still believe in such a God when something so horrible has happened to my family and me?

September 11, 2001 was my twenty-second birthday. I sat in front of the television most of that day in shock. At the end of that day I began to ask myself the same questions that my father’s death had caused me to ask, on a larger scale. How do the events of that day fit into a religious understanding of the world?

Jewish funeral readings, traditional psalms for houses of mourning, and the daily liturgies of the morning, afternoon and evening services all describe and extol God as omnipotent creator of heavens and earth. In the Amida prayer, recited three times a day, we thank God, “for our lives that are bound up in your hands, for our souls that arc remembered by you, and for your miracles that are every day with us.” This litany does not easily co-exist with the anger induced by tragedy.

But the prayerbook was not the only place I looked for answers.

Memoirs of loss have not helped me. Everyone deserves to tell her story, but I just don’t have patience to listen. I am reminded of shiva etiquette, and how a proper shiva caller waits for the mourner to speak first. Invoking this privilege of shiva, I have avoided more personal grief books. I want a book that will help explain what happened and allow me to have an honest relationship with Judaism that includes all my messy questions and conflicts.

Many memoirs of loss have to do with a long illness, and simply do not resonate with those of us whose losses were abrupt and without warning. Acknowledging the pain of these mourner-authors, I am nonetheless envious of the time they had with their loved ones before death. That difference makes those books, which might be very helpful to others, the opposite of helpful to me.

Rabbi Naomi Levy’s To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength and Faith in Difficult Times (Ballantine Books, $12.95) resonates with me in part because she has been through something like my experience—her father was shot and killed by a mugger when she was fifteen. Perhaps this leads us to have similar concerns, because she addresses the bigger questions of faith and loss. She explicates and encourages an authentic and full relationship to Judaism and God in the wake of terrible tragedy.

Rabbi Levy has had her own losses, and as spiritual leader of a congregation has see it many others. These stories, half the book, illustrate her points: that beginning again is possible, and that Judaism authentically makes room for pain, anger and questions. She addresses the faith questions that come up after a loss with strategies for working with and through the pain, towards a constructive and positive Jewish existence. Her stories sit side by side with philosophical and theological discussion.

Levy describes the evolution of her own understanding of God, long after her father’s death: “I began to believe in a God who was just as outraged as I was, just as pained, and just as helpless to protect us from harm. The Prophet Isaiah describes God this way: ‘In all their affliction God was afflicted.’ God is not distant and unfeeling, but compassionate. God suffers when we suffer . . . I was no longer looking to God to prevent ugliness, I was looking to God for the strength to carry on in the face of ugliness.”

I found comfort and strength in the soundness of Levy’s description of the extent of God’s direct power in the world. She points a way to healing through a new and mature understanding of God that avoids the self-defeating trap of resentment. Levy encourages prayer and study as ways to rebuild and renew after tragedy. The daily liturgy of Jewish prayer, however, describes and extols an all-powerful and completely just God. Acknowledging the mourner’s experience of dissonance between anger and praise. Levy includes prayers at the end of each section which address a wide range of feelings. These prayers underscore her point that all feelings belong inside anyone’s relationship to God, inside a synagogue, inside our worship, and not just inside our heads. She gives mourners permission to re-interpret prayers or write our own. She empowers mourners to include their anger and struggle in their Jewish expression, encouraging us not to separate the words we say from the feelings that, at times, overwhelm us.

Here is one example:

I am hurting, God. I feel lost, helpless, and alone. My tragedy seems so senseless. Help me, God, to embrace what I cannot understand, to find meaning in my suffering. Remind me that though I am powerless to choose my fate, I hold the power to choose a response to my fate. May 1 never be defeated. May I never grow bitter. May my sorrow lead me to strength, to compassion, and to you.

I am fortified by Levy’s understanding of God as a supportive presence and a fellow sufferer, receptive to cries of pain and anger as well as to litanies of praise. I return to the daily Amida with everything I feel. I can speak of my hurt and, at the same time, honestly thank God for daily miracles, for God’s “wonders and goodnesses at all times, evening and morning and noontime.” Both arc important; without the pain or the gratitude, my prayers are incomplete.

Levy points out that most people do not revise a naive concept of God until tragedy strikes. My painful loss has set me on the road towards a more nuanced and whole religious understanding. I have new questions and a new authentic engagement with prayer. I would still rather have my father back, but I am grateful for what I have now and can be grateful for what I had, even as I continue to mourn his loss.

Sophie Danis Oberfield recently graduated from college and thinks someday of becoming a rabbi.  Always on the lookout for more books that address difficult deaths and suffering from a theological standpoint, she asks that if you have any suggestions, email: sophie.oberfield@aya.yale.edu