Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Recently, an acquaintance of mine died. He was a member of a social club to which I belong. He died of cancer. I attended the wake in the afternoon, then went home and did nothing rather than going to a meeting at the social club. I'd known a week prior that he was very ill and felt sad for him, and sad about death in general.
I keep wondering, shouldn't the world "stop," or at least hesitate, just for a moment when someone dies? Of course, I'm exaggerating, but my acquaintance had a lot of influence on many people. Shouldn't we all care more about his passing? (I told my fiancé to shut down the town when I die, then agreed to limit that to only my street.)
Secondly, the widow seemed to have a new hairstyle and enjoyed the attention she was getting. I feel bad saying that, but it's true. She cared for her husband during five years of illness. I've never thought anything negative about her except that she enjoys attention. I admit to knowing nothing of the couple's private life or how much she must have done for him. She knew his death was coming.
Maybe I'm just being childish and naive. I haven't been affected by death much in my life. I am Catholic.
-- D., via email
Thank you for sending me your reflections on life and love and death that both reveal and conceal your kind and deep soul and your profound musings about the way we ought to react to the death of those we just barely know and the death of those we deeply love.
I hope the world stops, or your street stops, when you die. I also hope that happens -- but only when you are 120 years old -- but it will not happen. I do, however, share that feeling, especially now that my friend Father Tom Hartman is getting much sicker from his Parkinson's. Although I want him to be healed and returned to those of us who love him, I know that will not happen. Still, I find it hard to pray for the death of my friend, even though I want him to be released from his fog of frequent dementia and occasional pain.
And on that day when God kisses Tommy on the lips and takes his breath away, I will, like you, want the world to stop and join me in mourning the death of a man possessed of such extraordinary love and gifts. I will want the waves to stop, and I will want the birds to stop singing to mourn the passing of my friend, but the world is not like that. The world is alive, but the world does not mourn the passing of its life. That is why God made us and placed us in the world, but not of the world.
Accepting death is the hardest spiritual task God has set before us, and it is the reason people turn to God and religion more than any other reason one can name. On one level, we are just here for an instant. As the Psalmist sings in Psalm 90:5-6, we "are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth."
Yet, I join you in your outrage and grief about death in disagreeing with the Psalm and screaming at the void that we are not grass! But our cries to heaven do not change the realities of human finitude here on planet Earth.
We are dust and to dust we must return. However, there is in us an eternal soul that is not extinguished by death. That soul lives on with God in heaven and, to your point, it lives on in the remembrances of those who admired and loved us in life -- even if that admiration was at a distance.
Your observations about the conduct of his widow touch on another matter of death and grieving. We all grieve in different ways, and we must be patient and nonjudgmental in our observations of the way other people grieve. Your comments about his widow, her new hairstyle and her need for attention could have been a little more spiritually generous, as I know you understand. There is no right or wrong way to show one's grief to the world. Fountains of tears are not necessary to certify a broken heart.
May God receive the soul of your friend -- of all friends.
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