Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Recently, my daughter's closest friend, a woman in her 40s, was killed instantly in a horrific accident. My daughter is having a terrible time accepting this tragedy, having been through many difficult personal relationships recently. She feels her world has been shattered and will never be the same. The two were not only friends but co-workers. This death is all-encompassing for my daughter. It's difficult knowing what to say or how to console her. She tried locating a bereavement group for this type of situation but there don't seem to be any. I'm concerned that she's going into a depression. Can you offer any guidance?
-- J., via email
I pray for the soul of your daughter's friend; may it be received in heaven among the holy and righteous. I also pray for your broken daughter. If I could speak to her, I'd probably not say anything. I'd just sit and listen until I had some sense of what your daughter was like before her world was shattered. Then, I might take her with me to serve lunch to homeless people. You don't need consoling words for your own losses when you're looking into the eyes of people who have nothing.
I would definitely find a good therapist for your daughter, and I'd help her to find a bereavement group. The worst thing is for her to believe she's alone in her pain and grief. I would spend time talking about her friend's life -- not just her sudden death. I would take your daughter to hear her favorite music and eat at her favorite restaurant. Those are the practical things I might do.
Then, I might talk to your daughter about trees. Grief work, you see, is all about trees. Some trees in my yard were cut down by the recent storms. They're just stumps now, but some of the stumps will grow again. They will take the sun and the rain and send out new green shoots in the spring.
Not so some of the other stumps. Though they'll be warmed by the same sun and watered by the same rains, they will remain dead and rot into the earth. It's not given to me to know why some fallen trees cling to life so passionately, while others give up. Job wrote that the secret to the rebirth of cut down trees is having roots that are "old in the earth" (Job 14:8).
Maybe Job knew more about trees than I do. What I do know is that what's true about trees is also true about us. Some of us find the courage, hope and love to rebuild our lives after being cut down by grief and loss, while others become embittered, angry and bereft.
I would like to say, because I do believe this, that people with faith have an easier time blooming into new lives after being knocked down by grief than people who have nothing in them but the biological facts of life and death. God is water and sun to trees and to me.
As C.S. Lewis wrote about his Christian faith: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." Your daughter needs some great explanatory metaphor for the world that includes the death of her friend but does not leave her overwhelmed and shattered by the death of that friend. Faith may work for her. The problem is, this is a very hard time for her to be auditioning God.
Certainly, I don't want to build a defense of religion on the smoldering chaos of your daughter's grief. I know many atheists who get through their grief work with great courage and renewed hope. I also know people of faith who've been utterly and irredeemably crushed by loss. However, I do believe that if your daughter has a connection to any spiritual community, and to any spiritual teacher, she might greatly benefit from connecting with that community and that person now.
Your daughter is right. Her world will never be the same, but her world can be rebuilt, and she must make that choice. You cannot make that choice for her, and you can't provide magic answers for her.
As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, she must "live her way into the answers." Your gentle, loving presence in your daughter's life is not only the most you can do, but it is the best you can do. Her life is the tree you have planted in the future. She is cut down today, but the spring is coming tomorrow.
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