Over the years it has been my sad duty to officiate at many funerals. I have met with families in their moments of deepest grief. I have witnessed many approaches to sorrow. From this broad experience, certain basic ideas and concepts have emerged.
In the first place, I have learned that it is good and necessary for a person to express grief. This sounds simple enough. But there is a tendency in our age to be ashamed of showing our feelings. When we call upon a friend who has sustained a loss, we try to talk about everything except the reality of death. Death is uncomfortable. It disturbs us; we want as little anxiety as possible.
We may not accept all the teachings of modern psychology, but this much is certainly true: when we repress our natural emotions, we create abnormal reactions. Often these emerge later in life as physical pain or mental distress.
Secondly, there is a widespread tendency to say what is improper to a person who is mourning.
Out of mistaken goodwill, we say that time is a great healer, or that God works in mysterious ways, or that love will come again.
These well-meant platitudes leave the mourner confused and disconcerted. After all, the sorrow is genuine and real, and the mourner needs to feel and express it.
The Talmud advises that the comforters should not utter words of consolation until the mourner speaks.
In the third place, it is necessary to respond to the challenge of life, to pick up the threads of daily existence once again. Unwisely, some mourners withdraw into a realm of exaggerated grief and excessive mourning. They wrap around themselves the gloomy garments of extended sorrow, rather than face the truth that life must go on.
Shakespeare wrote “Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead; excessive grief the enemy of the living.”
Rabbi Jacob Rudin left us these thoughtful words, “To ask of death that it never come is futile, but it is not futility to pray that when death does come, it may takes us from a world, one corner of which is a little better because we were there.”
Wisdom would suggest that this is the true purpose of the shivah period. After a period of acute sorrow, we are brought back slowly to ongoing problems. Life is a gift, and to die emotionally or spiritually with the loss of a loved one is to compound or double the loss.
Finally, in contemplating the life of a loved one, the values that really matter and persist are character, integrity, reputation and family relationships.
A good character is the fruit of personal exertion. We don’t inherit it from our parents. It doesn’t come to us automatically because of where we live, or how much formal education we possess, or the nature of our work, or the size of our income.
After our time on Earth, we carry nothing away with us except the memory of our character, our good deeds and our good name.