On laugh­ing, cry­ing, griev­ing and dy­ing

Griev­ing and mourn­ing are poignant things we have to live with, but avoid self-pity

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - RABBI BERNARD BASKIN Rabbi Bernard Baskin is Rabbi Emer­i­tus of Tem­ple An­she Sholom in Hamil­ton and an oc­ca­sional con­trib­u­tor to this page.

(In mem­ory of Peter Ge­orge — cher­ished friend, staunch Hamil­to­nian, proud Cana­dian)

The Bi­ble con­tains many ex­pres­sions of grief and mourn­ing.

None is more poignant than the words spo­ken by King David on hear­ing of the death of his son. “The King was shaken, he went up to the up­per cham­ber of the stair­way and wept, moan­ing these words as he went ‘My son Ab­sa­lom! Oh my son, my son Ab­sa­lom! If only I had died in­stead of you! O Ab­sa­lom, my son, my son.”

There is a dif­fer­ence be­tween grief and griev­ance.

We need to keep them clear and far apart, or we shame the love we are hon­our­ing. To be ‘mad at god’ or other peo­ple; or to imagine that we are sin­gled out for trou­ble; or to cling tena­ciously to sor­row and blot out ev­ery­thing else is not gen­uine an­guish, it is merely an oc­ca­sion for in­dulging griev­ances. It con­fuses grief with self-pity. The poet Robert Frost wrote: “Out through the fields and woods, And over the walls I have wended, I have climbed the hills of view, And looked at the world, and de­scended, I have come by the high­way home, And lo, it is ended, Ah, when to the heart of man, Was it ever less than a trea­son, To go with the drift of things, To yield with a grace to rea­son, And bow and ac­cept the end, Of a love or a sea­son?” D.H. Lawrence as­serted: “Ah, if you want to live in peace on the face of the earth,

Then build your ship of death, in readi­ness,

For the long­est jour­ney, over the last of seas.”

In the mem­o­rable pas­sage, open­ing his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Speak Mem­ory, Vladimir Nabokov wrote about the parallel be­tween the time be­fore we are born and the time after we die.

He told of some­one fear­ful of time, a chrono­pho­biac, who sees home movies of his fam­ily be­fore he was born and is dis­turbed by the recog­ni­tion that no one missed him. He sees his cra­dle, the one in which he would soon be rocked and sung to, and it bears to him, “the smug, en­croach­ing air of a cof­fin.”

He added that the world ex­isted be­fore us and will ex­ist after. But we are not hor­ri­fied by the time be­fore we were born, for that time was not first given and then snatched away.

It is the loss of what we have been given, not the ob­jec­tive state of death that we fear. Life is mea­sured by what we have had the chance to grasp.

Jewish tra­di­tion sug­gests that vis­i­tors to a house of mourn­ing, should not ad­dress the be­reaved un­til first spo­ken to.

Words should be ut­tered when they are help­ful and use­ful, not when they are apt to en­hance a per­son’s sense of des­o­la­tion or anger. I be­lieve that hold­ing one’s tongue is wise. Speech may be sil­ver, but si­lence is golden.

One of the myths about loss is “that when you are griev­ing, there is never any joy, laugh­ter or smil­ing,” ac­cord­ing to Ge­orge A. Bo­nanno, Chair of the Depart­ment of Clin­i­cal Psy­chol­ogy at Teacher’s Col­lege, Columbia Univer­sity. He noted that in his in­ter­views with the be­reaved, peo­ple were cry­ing one mo­ment and laugh­ing the next, after re­call­ing a mem­ory for ex­am­ple. There has been solid re­search that laugh­ter con­nects us to other peo­ple, “It’s con­ta­gious and makes other peo­ple feel bet­ter,” he said.

Not long ago, a woman died who was both my close friend and cher­ished com­pan­ion. At her fu­neral I read a poem that touched many hearts. I am pleased to share it with you.

“Mu­sic I heard with you was more than mu­sic,

And bread I broke with you was more than bread, Now that I am with­out you, all is des­o­late, All that was once so beau­ti­ful is dead. Your hands once touched this ta­ble and this sil­ver,

And I have seen your fin­gers hold this glass,

These things do not re­mem­ber you, beloved,

And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart you moved among them,

And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes,

And in my heart they will re­mem­ber al­ways,

They knew you once, O beau­ti­ful and wise.”

•“Bread and Mu­sic” by Con­rad Aiken (1889-1973)


Re­tired McMaster Univer­sity Pres­i­dent Peter Ge­orge died April 27. Rabbi Bernard Baskin ded­i­cates this es­say to his mem­ory.

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