One morning just months after my mother died suddenly of cancer (she was only 56), I saw a posting for a bereavement group that was hosting Rabbanit Yemimah Mitzrachi, a guest speaker that I am obsessed with. I had heard her speak a few times prior, but only in huge crowds. I was so excited about the prospect of hearing her in a more intimate setting.
When I got there, I realized very soon after that I had misunderstood the flyer… oops.
It turned out to be a bereavement group specifically for women who had lost children. Losing a child is a pain I have never personally experienced, and hope to never know. They are an exclusive class of people that I refer to as “the elite” of humanity. As I stood there (a bit embarrassed that I was in the wrong place) I could literally feel the strength in that room. And although I didn’t “belong” there, they all made me feel so unbelievably welcome. I could tell right away in that room that these were women who had tremendous strength, the kind with the power to carry the immense weight of the entire world.
I often think of grief as a backpack full of heavy, glowing, magical rocks. Rocks that over time, and with lots of effort, can be unlocked, channeled and transformed to reveal some pretty incredible superpowers.
At the beginning of the class, Yemimah asked each woman to share about the child they had lost. It’s so hard to put words to this experience. Listening to these women share each of their stories was painful to the core - a pain I felt in the deepest part of my soul. I, like many of the other women there, cried right through that entire part.
But in a weird way, it felt like I was on a spiritual high. Perhaps because the physical pain from such a trauma is so great, it almost takes you out of your physical body? Perhaps it was the deep connections I began to feel towards this room full of strangers? I honestly don’t know. All I know is that the energy in the room was palpable.
This class was right before Purim. Yemimah pointed out something fascinating about the story of Queen Esther;
She described the story as the quintessential fairytale. You can’t beat the story-line, it’s better than any Disney princess movie… full of betrayal, drama, sacrifice… with Esther as the heroine. On Purim, little girls dress up like her in their pretty princess dresses, wearing makeup and a crown... but in all of the celebration and festivities, we don’t always catch the biggest wow factor in the plot; Esther sacrificed her own easy and low-key life for the greater good of society. She embraced her destiny and wore a very heavy crown so that her people would be safe. She was definitely not in it for the glory or the prestige of being a queen. In some ways, she didn’t have a choice. But we know that although she was in a terrible situation, she rose above it. And despite her suffering (or maybe even because of it), she took tangible actions to make the world a better and safer place to live.
This was the message that Yemimah wanted to emphasize. She concluded by asking the same women, whom 45 minutes earlier were crying as they shared about their most dreadful loss, to please share what they have gained from their loss. How have they gone on to impact the world since their loss. At this point I was shaken to my core. Listening to how these women channeled their grief towards the greater good felt like a huge step towards healing in my own grief journey.
It has been a year since I attended this class but I think about it often.
It's also been about a year and half since my mom died, and I am still not able to identify my own superpowers yet. I have not embraced the heaviness of my crown, my meaning or my purpose within the pain. I miss my mother every day and obviously I wish she didn’t die (I can’t imagine anyone who is grieving would feel otherwise).
An idea that has given me tremendous strength though, is remembering that this world is temporary. We come and we go, taking with us only the person we become during our lifetime.
We learn that when a Hebrew word shares a root but has two different meanings, those words are still connected in some way. The root word tzarr צ - ר - ר generally refers to narrow or tight. There is a famous saying by Rabbi Nachman of Breslev that uses part of that word - tzar צַר ; "The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is to have no fear at all". “ כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד והעיקר לא לפחד כלל“. The famous translation of this passage is always “narrow” but the related words seem to give this saying more depth. One related word is tzara (tragedy, trouble, distress) and the other is litzror (to bind or connect).
As we go through grief after a tragedy, it seems the pain will never end. It’s normal to feel fear, shaken, and unsteady. As we cross the narrow bridge towards healing, we begin to see that there are others who have been through similar, and we have a newfound hope to see how they came out the other side. We connect with them. We bond over our shared experiences. They shed a light for us, giving us an understanding of the other side of the bridge. We see that although they will always miss their loved one deeply, the pain will eventually lessen as they slowly start to reconnect with the world around them. This alleviates our fear (just a bit) that this feeling just might last forever.
I am so grateful to have connected with many people who have been through the world's worst circumstances, and they somehow found the strength inside of them to push beyond what they were capable of. We never ask for tests. Nobody in their right mind would trade in comfort and stability for the superpowers that come with overcoming adversity. But once someone is faced with challenges beyond their control, they usually choose to rise and make the fight meaningful.
David Kessler who co-authored a book on grief with Elizabrth Kubler Ross discussed on a podcast about his experience losing a child. After the book was originally published he felt like there was something missing. He felt that it was important to add a chapter on making meaning out of grief. He explained that he would obviously choose for his son to be alive any day, rather than acquiring this newfound meaning, but that he felt like it wasn't enough to just grieve. He needed to create a legacy or some lasting connection in this world that allowed for his son’s life to live on somehow. To create a bridge, however narrow, with his loved one again.
I related to this with my whole heart.
Living with grief is hard.
The journey is not clearly mapped out for us. We have good days and then we have days we fall and cry. And then we get up… again. On our grief journey we carry those glowing rocks on our backs. Some days they will weigh us down and immobilize us, and others they will be a beacon of light, a new lens in which we see the world more clearly. We didn't ask for these glowing rocks, and we'd always opt to have our loved one alive rather than carry the weight of these gemstones, but we don’t have that choice. All we are left with is how we will carry them and use them to make the world a bit brighter.
As I mentioned in my blog, “My Turbulent Relationship with G-d”, I wanted to try and tap into stories of people who have been able to capture this and learn from them. In the coming weeks I will share some of the stories that have been shared with me, in hopes that you will be as inspired as I have been.