On Mourning and Consolation

Translated by Naftaly Moses

By R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg [1] – from Hebrew, N.M

What does it mean to comfort a mourner? Can somebody actually console another for his loss ?  At times, the shiva comes to resemble a party—people come and go, chatting about the day’s events. They do not know how to confront death. The usual questions—how did it happen, how long was he sick—these are mere subterfuges aimed at masking the fact that the one being mourned is gone. His absence is difficult to grasp. But it is also threatening, it raises feelings of guilt—why him and not me? For some this is too much: they come to dread death like a contagious disease, taboo, not to be mentioned.

But this misses the main point. When one is confronted by another’s mortality, we often react instinctively with denial—we don’t talk about death so as not to upset him, the sick patient. Often the patient himself lives with the same denial. But this is a great loss—here is the last opportunity to talk. After a certain point, the time comes when the most important moments of a life, ending as it must, are there for the taking. Even after death, the mourners speak only about him, not addressing the person he really was. So here I would like to offer some thoughts (that lie somewhere between the emotional and philosophical) in an attempt to broach something deeper than the usual empty chatter.

Often the context of mourning offers a canvas upon which some (especially those who see themselves as representing Judaism) draw their discussions of the soul’s immortal nature. This is supposed to be comforting. But they are mistaken. They ignore the fact that death, even though first brought into the world as a curse, is an integral part of life itself—in fact one of the most important. It is a mistake to understand that the soul’s continued existence can be understood in simple physical terms, like we would understand the continued existence of a table.

We need to leave behind what philosophers call “metaphysical thought”—it merely confuses the matter. What do we mean by the soul’s immortality? Certainly, mere physical existence in the way that the deceased was known to us is not the answer. We cannot make an object out of the deceased. Perhaps in this world, there is something of an object in each individual, but in the world to come this ‘objectness’ is stripped away—what is left is only subject. Intimacy arises only when we talk to someone and not about him. It is only then that the subject is created; the subject who cannot come into being through indirect communication.

The creation of the subject necessitates that we leave reification behind and not treat our interlocutor as an object. In death, the object has already been removed for us. The deceased is no longer here. We need a new type of speech; we need to speak with the deceased, to remain in intimate contact—even after his physical departure. We are often most comfortable thinking in physical terms—the afterlife is described as an actual place, whether high in the heavens or deep below the earth. But we need to let go of such thinking. Maimonidies explains that humans want immortality, but they also want flesh and blood. Unfortunately, the two are incompatible. Immortality cannot be physicality.

Medieval scholars already asked why we should even mourn, if the soul has not only not died, but has gone on to a much better place. But this question itself is evidence of the confused thought which we need to abandon. We cannot think that ‘something,’ some ‘object’ remains after death. Death is real in this sense—it destroys that ‘something’, the physicality of life. Only if we confuse the soul’s continued existence with something physical could we wonder why we should mourn in the face of death. Mourning itself lies on the physical plane—the place where death strikes.

Real discourse, one with another, creates a relationship between speakers which is not erased even by death. We can even talk with those who have departed this world. Lubavitch Hasidim developed this into a regular practice. The last Rebbe continued to regularly visit his father-in-law’s grave and held weekly discussions with him. Somebody who was very close to you can, in fact, continue to speak through you. You can still hear him, not only with your imagination, but in a very real way. The soul’s immortality needs to be understood as discourse with the subject, and not the object; with someone, and not something.

Each of us meets death at some point in time. The question is whether the deceased remains ‘someone’ for us, or fades into a mere ‘something.’ The presence of the deceased is not imaginary; it can be more actual than that of the living. Presence is more than mere physicality.

This brings us to consolation. Comforting mourners means giving expression to an intimacy which is not dependent upon anything—certainly not mere physical presence. When this intuition is expressed—through words, a handshake, tears—something beyond value is exchanged. This is not the place for playacting; real faith in this intuition is needed in order to give it expression. It requires no small measure of bravery to transmit.

In the case of one who has died tragically before his time, there is something beyond pain. We feel injustice. But we still cannot ignore death itself. It still is what provides us with the deepest intimacy, the strongest of bonds between men. Our Sages referred to caring for the dead as the only ‘true mercy’ there is. If a man lived forever he would not be a man. The very fact that we live in the shadow of death creates our humanity. We need to confront death as something real, not an illusion; but also to realize that that which died was that which in fact never existed. What is Real cannot die. By this I mean that which is created through our intimate interpersonal communication—if before our death, we succeeded in attaining this level of interconnectivity. This is what can comfort us.

When one discovers that his death is imminent, he may react with denial. Many remain in this state. Others, however, move on to fear. But after this comes acceptance. It is at this stage that the path to intimacy can be opened. Opened via the path of speech—the very stuff of out which the soul is made. I mean this in a very real way. The soul is created—not in a physical sense—but in a very actual sense—out of communication. But this is confusing—we confuse the Real with the physical. Of course there are tears and mourning—but we have already been instructed not to mourn too much. However, mourning gives expression to our humanity and it cannot be ignored; it is, in fact, a precondition for love. Only mortality gives us a sense of urgency without which we would languish, never moving forward with that which really matters in our daily lives.

We are constantly accompanied by our thoughts about those no longer with us—even if we do not dwell upon them daily. A broken heart is a part of our lives. What comforts us is faith in something more fundamental than this. We do not need to seek a cure for our pain. When a loved one dies, our life changes forever, no matter if he is young and we are old. Our life changes, but not necessarily for the worse. The deceased is constantly with us, it is always possible to return, to turn to him. This is what mourning is about. This is a double movement: one the one hand mourning, on the other consolation. Consolation means giving space in our life for our pain: not by way of anger or depression, but on the contrary, by giving our life deeper meaning, by bringing a courageous sublimity to our interpersonal relations.

I really do not know how to deal with the death of a murdered youth. Anyone can mouth the words, but to deal with something means being able to say them truthfully. In the face of tragic death, someone from the outside has difficulty doing so. Only one who has himself been there can speak. We can only say to another that which we can say to ourselves; otherwise our words are mere lies—despite what we tell ourselves. We can only speak out of existential truth; even if what we want to say is true—first we must say it to ourselves. Only afterwards can we speak these words to another. This may still be quite difficult, nearly impossible, but when we arrive at this point—we can soften even the harshest of blows.

A youngster’s death is disturbing; it shakes us out of the complacency of our daily lives. It remains as a tumor within us—but it can be changed from a malignant growth, to one that can heal. I knew a woman whose husband was killed only a few years after they married and she remained alone for the rest of her days, never remarrying. Was she truly alone all those year? Not necessarily. She remained with her late husband throughout her daily life, throughout the raising of their children. To speak of an actual presence may seem like apologetics, like false words of comfort. But such consolation can be real and such words can be spoken in a way that gives true comfort. This is faith at its best: Can we look at life as something positive, as something inherently good, despite the tragedy which has literally torn us apart? Will our pain continue to seethe within and destroy our lives? Or can it enrich them?

This is the most personal of choices. It cannot be made with any outside help. In moments of suffering one need ask oneself how he will mourn and give himself an answer. The question is whether we take our tragedy back into our lives, into the rest of our relationships and make them better. This can also be how we complete our relationship with the deceased, even if we never attained a measure of true intimacy while he lived. Our intimacy with others is an expression of the continued connection with the deceased. Our answer is not ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but we move back and forth – sometimes rising above the pain, and sometimes sinking into doubt. These extremes are not as important as where we most often find ourselves. Do we have enough moments of ascendancy that they can even enlighten those of despair? There are always times of depression, of lost clarity and conviction—that is part of being human. But the greatness of our humanity is in our ability not to let these moments define us, but to seek to rise above them. This is what injects something of eternity into our midst.

R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known by the acronym R. Shagar, was an exceptional Israeli rabbi, teacher and writer. I was privileged to have been his student and English translator. He died in 2007 at the age of 57. This piece was written in * on the occasion of *.

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