Good Grief

by Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen

We often hear people speak of birth as a miracle. Seldom do we hear of death spoken of in the same way. But if there is something miraculous about life coming into existence, certainly the same holds true for death. To watch an active person reduced into inorganic nothingness before our very eyes is also a miracle, albeit a terrible one.

But if death is the other side of the coin which we call life, then grief is the other side of love. Bereavement is love not wanting to let go. Each tear we shed is a midwife which helps bring us into a new world. We mourn our loss. Then we face a new day. We turn a new page. We start a new chapter. We begin our own new life.

We are all terminal. From the moment we are born, we are destined to die. Our happiness is bound up in our ability to accept death as a fact of life. Acceptance of our mortal end is not something which comes easily. Such growth takes work. None of us have time to lose in accepting this reality.

How do we die? Each death, like each life, is unique. Some deaths are noble. Some are petty. Some are loving. Some are angry. Most are a combination of these things. But just as our lives are, to a great extent, at our command, so too are our deaths. Although we cannot determine precisely the day and hour of our passing or its ultimate cause, we can often orchestrate how we want our last days to be. We can live until we die.

Death is not entirely tragic. Our loved ones can bask in the afterglow of something that was once wonderful and be grateful that they once shared something beautiful with us.

As a rabbi, you might expect me to tell you that everything in the Bible is true. But I would be lying if I told you I believe that. We are taught "the Lord gives and the Lord takes away." But, in truth, not everything is taken from us. Memory is ours as long as we live.

Every person is like a snowflake. Every person, like every snowflake is unique. Both people and snowflakes have intricate patterns which have never been replicated and never will. Yet both people and snowflakes melt away before our eyes. Each is frail. Each is, in its own way, something beautiful. Each is so very delicate and vulnerable. Each is precious beyond words.

Literature is full of "famous last words" by celebrated individuals. (It is simply amazing how loquacious some of these people were considering the state they were in.) Nowadays, dues to improvements in palliative care, it is highly unlikely that we will be conscious enough to have that kind of lucidity. In all likelihood we will be tethered to all kinds of devices which are intended to ease our passing. While these improvements will make our deaths more comfortable, it will be at the expense of mental clarity. The time to express one's thoughts and wishes is now.

When my mother died I inherited her needle point tapestries. When I was a little boy I used to sit at her feet as she worked on them. Have you ever seen needle point from underneath? All I could see was chaos, strands of thread all over with no seeming purpose. As I grew, I was able to view her work from above. I came to appreciate the intricate patterns. What is more, I learned that the dark patterns were every bit as essential to the success of the work as the bright and gaily colored ones. Sometimes I think that life is like that. From our human perspective, we cannot see the whole picture. We have a limited view of reality. Nevertheless, we should not despair that there is an explanation, meaning and purpose.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote a poem reflecting on the death of his father: "Do not go gentle into that good night/ Old age should burn and rage at close of day/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light." But in the end all rage and anger will pass. We will enter an realm of peace where nothing can hurt us, ever.

We are the people of the book. Each of us is an author writing the book of his or her life. Authors dream of their work becoming a classic, but few ever do. Whether or not the book of our lives becomes a classic depends on us, but not only on us. To an even greater extent it depends on those who remain behind. For what is a classic but a work to which others make reference after it is finished? It is not for us to finish the task.

Franz Rosenzweig concluded his classic, THE STAR OF REDEMPTION with these words "To walk humbly with thy God--the words are written over the gate, which leads out of the mysterious-miraculous light of the divine sanctuary in which no person can remain alive. Whither, then, do the wings of the gate open? Thou knowest it not? INTO LIFE."

Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen is Hillel Director of American University in Washington, DC.