These readings hit home for quite a few people in my class, particularly in my own home, where we have been struggling with one setback after another for two years.
A year ago, right after our baby was born, my husband was crippled by the searing pain of an L4-L5 disc herniation; it was eventually repaired, but pain and other symptoms still linger. Meanwhile, I developed my own popourri of woes attributed to hypermobility syndrome — a condition whereby one’s joints become too flexible, because my body’s collagen is being manufactured incorrectly.
These experiences have given me a powerful lesson in what it means to “mourn.” I had always thought of mourning and grief as things that happen when a person you love dies. Arthur Frank, in his book “At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness,” offers a much broader perspective from his experiences battling cancer. This excerpt, from the chapter “Mourning What Is Lost,” flies open the doors to just how broad mourning and grief can go. He explains it like this:
The loss that accompanies illness begins in the body as pain does, then moves out until it affects the relationships connecting that body to others. My awkward attempts to avoid commitments I was not sure I could fulfill only made people think I was distancing myself from them. I acted not from lack of freiendship but because my body was taking me out of their natural flow of plans and expectations. I lost my sense of belonging … The inability to make specific plans is only the beginning of the loss of belonging. … Loss of the future is complemented by loss of the past. …
Middle age insinuates itself slowly into our bodies and lives. It is the time when on a good day you can still kid yourself into thinking you are as young as ever. Several nights before my surgery, I looked myself in a mirror. My body I saw was not the body I had had at 22 or even 30, but it retained for me a continuity of those bodies. The changes, the deteriorations, had been gradual.
That night I knew that after surgery, I would never be the same. It would irrevocably break my body’s continuity with its past. When you say goodbye to your body, as I was going that night, you say goodby to how you have lived. … Other losses went beyond the body. Cathie and I had always hoped that if the worst happened, friends and relatives would respond with care and involvement. Some came through. Other disappeared. We now find it hard to resume relationships with those who could not acknolwedge the illness that was happening, not just to me but to us. Those relationships were lost.
Together, Cathie and I lost an innocence about the normal expectation of life. At one time it seemed normal to expect to work and accomplish certain things, to have children and watch them grow, to share their experiences with others, to grow old together. Now we realize that these events may or may not happen. Life is contingent. We are no longer sure what it is normal to expect.
… These losses of future and past, of place and innocence, must all be mourned. We should never question how another person chooses to mourn. I was fortunate to have a wife to share my mourning. Sharing losses seemed to be the gentlest way of living with them.
Several hundred years ago, a great rabbi, the Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, scripted his own prayer for these moments of loss. Here are his words from The Gentle Weapon: Prayers for Everyday and Not-So-Everyday-Moments. I have chosen my own translations for his use of the word “God”:
Dear Soil From Which I Come,
suddenly I am alone; I am in pain.
As I search for some source
the world —
the world so full so bustling —
seems so empty now.
and it’s frightening
in this hollow that is me —
in this hollow that once brimmed
with confidence and joy.
Creator, pull me back —
back to the world of the living,
back to the life of action
and human relationships.
It’s a beautiful prayer that brings relief to simply read.
What are your thoughts? Have you experienced a loss that makes Frank’s or Nachman’s words resonate? I’d love to hear your stories or reactions.
Where’s a Good Yenta When You Need One!? No need to sulk; The Matchmaker Rabbi is in! To see Joysa’s columns for Jdate, visit here. Her forthcoming book on dating in Jewish suburbia is being represented by Red Sofa Literary Agency.