We’re deep into the 9 Days now, a period of mourning for the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem as well as all the other losses the Jewish people have endured. There are laws about what we should refrain from doing during this period, from not listening to music, to not washing clothes, eating meat, and others. Meanwhile, it seems as if there are modern day reminders of loss and mourning all around me.
Far away, there have been tragedies in Israel, where families have lost loved ones due to terrorism there. I’ve heard of at least three children who have died from drowning. Closer to home, last week, one of my best childhood friends suffered the loss of her father, a man I’ve known all my life who was a wonderful father and husband and as close as family to my own. As I try to choose the right condolence gifts and witness their pain from afar, a question comes to me, “What, really, is mourning?”
You’d think I’d be an expert at mourning by now.
My family was decimated by cancer as I grew up. My grandfather was one of eleven siblings and all but him succumbed to different forms of cancer. My brother fought cancer in his 20’s, but later died of kidney cancer just a year older than I am now, at 41. Funerals were regular events of my childhood and I always had a black dress hanging in my closet, waiting. You would think that mourning and I would be well acquainted by now and perhaps we are.
One thing I have learned about mourning is that it’s unpredictable. After the loss of a loved one, you can feel great one moment, even be laughing and then some small thing unearths buried pain, like the earth cracking to reveal hot lava underneath. It rises up when you least expect it and it can feel overwhelming, like you could drown in that much emotion. The first instinct is to run from it, to escape into work or any diversion you can find. It sometimes feels like you can’t breath in the tide of all that feeling.
That was how I initially approached my brothers death. I buried myself in work and I ran long distance. I pushed my grief aside in a way that Orthodox Jews aren’t allowed to do, due to the laws of shiva. When you dam off a stream, it may seem more peaceful for a while, the waters gathering to form a placid lake, but if that dam breaks, there is so much built up power. Eventually, months later, my grief broke free and came out. I remember coming home from work early to Mr. Safek and suddenly, just kind of crumpling onto the floor, an inhuman howl of pain escaping me as sobs shook my body. He just held me and let me cry, which was the kindest thing anyone could have done. It all needed to come out, like poison from a wound.
Which brings me back to the 9 Days.
Collectively, Jews have a pain that goes back thousands of years, welled up inside and fed by the losses that just keep coming to a people who has lost so much. A coworker, weeks ago when I explained Tisha B’Av, asked me why Jews would have such an unhappy holiday and I found myself struggling to find the right words to explain it to him. I guess, holy days of mourning help relieve the pressure of that buried sadness, that grief that lurks beneath. We mourn together much like my husband holding me as I sobbed, letting out all that has pent up so that we can move on with the business of joy and creation. Periods of mourning, like the Jewish custom of sitting shiva, force us to confront our grief rather than running from it like I did my grief at the loss of my brother. The customs and laws surrounding the 3 weeks and the 9 days constantly remind us of things perhaps we would otherwise avoid thinking about, gently returning us to contemplate our loss.
My family practiced a very stoic way of dealing with death, which is to say, we avoided dealing with it and certainly didn’t acknowledge public grief. Tears might be allowed a little during an actual funeral, but then we were expected to stuff those emotions back down and carry on. That only works so long until all that feeling begins to sour to poison.
I prefer the Jewish way of facing grief, less like an enemy and more like a healer. It’s bitter medicine to be sure, but allowing it to bring our pain to the surface to be washed away by tears feels so much healthier.
May Hashem comfort all those who mourn among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.