TORONTO — When you’re dealing with death and grief, it’s important to find comfort in friends and family since they can pull you out of isolation and help you through the grieving process.
That was one of the points made by the four speakers at a Nov. 15 panel at Beth Sholom Synagogue dealing with loss and personal tragedy.
Each panellist approached the topic, “The Many Facets of Personal Tragedy and Grief,” from different angles.
Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich, from the hosting synagogue, opened the evening with a speech in which he described the feeling that comes with loss – a sense of believing that nothing will ever be the same.
“If we can step back and rearrange the words that frame this evening, I would say to you first, there is tragedy, then there is grief,” he said. “Everyone’s grief is different.”
Paul Goldstein of Bereaved Jewish Families of Ontario (BFJO), which is run under the auspices of Jewish Family & Child, said attending grief sessions helped him face the death of his 20-year-old daughter, Shelley, who died in a car crash on her way to visit her sister at Camp Biluim in Mont-Tremblant, Que.
“In our grief, we cannot ever forget those around us who mean so much to us,” he said. “Let friends know you value and need them. You never know who or what will comfort you.”
Although she died almost 27 years ago, Goldstein said that, at times, the pain is still indescribable.
When he was first dealing with the death, he said he wanted to hide from the world and be alone with his emptiness and sadness. However, he learned he could run away from people, but not from his feelings.
Panellist MP Olivia Chow said although being with family and friends was immensely important when she was facing the death of her husband, former New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, being in the public eye meant she also valued time alone.
“We had the state funeral, beautiful ceremonies, tributes,” she said. “There are different forms of commemoration, and that part, it’s comforting but it’s also really difficult.”
She tried to spend time alone, sometimes exercising, and often swimming. You can cry in the water and no one can tell, she said.
In addition to turning to friends and families, the speakers all agreed there were times when remembering their loved one was difficult, but helpful.
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, of Beth Tzedec Congregation, said it can be difficult to get back to routine when you know the person isn’t there anymore. Even sitting around a table can be a challenge, he said, since you notice the person’s absence in an empty chair.
“Each of us can remember a particular place where we can see our father, mother, our child,” he said. “And sometimes we don’t want to touch it. But other times we want to sit in that chair. We want to lie down in that bed. We want to feel that person’s presence.”
The pews at Beth Sholom were mostly filled with seniors, many of whom were grieving. Throughout the speeches, some of them cried quietly, nodding as the speakers discussed their own experiences with death.
People nodded in agreement when Chow said she discovered that her grief comes and goes. “It could be an ordinary time and then boom, it comes, just like big waves.”
Goldstein shared a similar experience. He said although the pain, at times, is still indescribable, he realized that death is not the end of a relationship.
“[My family] allows ourselves to remember and think often of Shelley. It brings sadness, but also the warmth of remembrance,” he said. “Now when I think of my daughter, a smile comes to my face, and maybe tears.”
Chow said she’s not convinced that time will heal her sadness, although she added that she doesn’t cry as often these days. The key, however, is to celebrate the deceased person to show that love conquers death, she said.
“How do we do that? By connecting with other people. By celebrating that person’s legacy,” she said.
She thought about Layton as she sculpted a bust of him as a memorial. She said while he was alive, he had asked her to make one, but she joked she didn’t feel it was right to inflate his ego.
However, she found that sculpting it helped her connect with him in a private way, outside of her public life.
“Oh my God, was that ever hard,” she said. “Was it therapeutic? Maybe. I don’t know. It was very hard.”
Rabbi Flanzraich stressed that everyone’s grief is different, and unless you’ve faced such profound loss, you cannot understand the feeling, he said. For many, death can make it seem like nothing will ever be the same again, he added.
But “even though [life] might not be the same again,” he said, “it doesn’t mean life can’t be both beautiful and meaningful.”