Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Road to Comfort

In life for most of us there are losses that we never get over. Usually the loss we can not get past is one that we not only feel sad about, we also feel guilty.
When parents sustain the death of a child, while both parents grieve, it is more typically the mother who cannot reconcile to the reality of her child's death, and for long long years. Why? Why the mother more than the father? Because the mother feels it her responsibility to protect her child. She is the nurturer, the one who is meant to safeguard her young. For her there is not only the deep and painful sadness, there is also a sense of guilt, even if often irrational, that she should have prevented his/her death. With time sadness usually becomes less oppresive.
Guilt never goes away!

It is for this reason Yaakov, our father, could never reconcile himself to the presumed death of Yosef, even after 22 years. Yaakov was a man of faith. Hhow is it he could not accept the will of G-d relative to his son and rise up from his mourning? The answer is, Yaakov had not only the sadness over the presumed death of his beloved son. Yaakov felt guilty for having sent Yosef out on the mission to seek out his brothers, a mission that to the best of his knowledge, brought on Yosef's death at the hands of a wild beast. The guilt he could not get past even after 22 years!

This reality also shows up in the Torah reading of this week, that of Chayai Sarah. The bulk of the parsha, after initially telling us of the death of Sarah and her burial, shares the story of the finding of a wife for Yitzchak. Yitzchak was 40 when he married Rivka. His mother had died at least 3 years earlier. Yet the Torah tells us that when Eliezer, Avraham's servant brought back Rivka to Yitzchak for a wife " And he took her for a wife and he loved her. And Yitzchak was comforted on the death of his mother."

Why did Yitzchak need comfort? Sarah died years ago. He was not boy at the time. To still be in need of comfort and grieving three years later is most surprising.
And if he was still grieving how did Rivka and their marriage bring him comfort?

Here too I think we need to consider the story of Sarah's death, at least as told in the Medrash. According to tradition Sarah died when she learned that Avraham had taken Yitzchak to Mount Moriah for the offering. She had a fatal heart attack thinking Yitzchak, her only son was about to be slaughtered. If we understand the death of Sarah in that way it is not surprising Yitzchak struggled to get past his loss. It was not the sadness over her absence he could not accept. It was the guilt he felt that he was in some way the cause of his mother's demise. Had his drama not been, his mother would not have died or at least not in so awful a manner, alone and in shock!

Okay, so now we know that grief and guilt are a toxic combination that can easily leave us unable to escape. How do we come to terms? Is there no relief? Are we who feel guilty over a loss condemned to a life of unending sorrow and despair?

The Torah in the story of Yitzchak tells us how to get to the other side of grief even when that grief involves guilt. What brought comfort to Yitzchak? The love of Rivka! Yitzchak could not undo the past. He could not be convinced that he was not responsible for the sad story of his mother's end. No, trying to talk someone out of guilt, especially when it concerns one they love, is usually pointless. Yitzchak got past the guilt when he started to love another. It was the new loving initiative that brought him comfort. It's not that he forgot his mother and his sense of failure. It is that his investment in loving another changed his focus and gave him life, with his guilt.

The lesson here for us is so compelling. How many of us live with a brokenness because we were not there to comfort a loved one when they were dying?
How many a parent feels a heaviness that won't go away for harm done to a child, harm that is irreparable and engendered a loss of one sort or another? Who has not failed to prevent an occurrence that meant hurt to ones we love? How many of us live with the loss of a divorce and its consequence on a family. Even if we get over the sadness over the loss of our once intact family, how do we ever get over the sense of guilt? If we have lived and loved invariably we sustain not only loss but guilt. How do we heal?

We heal by doing as Yitzchak did, by investing in new loving relationships or by re-investing more profoundly in old ones. We cannot make the past better. Nor can we rationalize our disappointment in ourselves. What we can do is take the energy that brings us down and use it to care for and benifit another. Will that make us happy again?
I think not...not as we once were. Forever our life will be bitter sweet.
We will be healed but with scars that endure!

I wish there was a way to make the world perfect again, to have the means to return to the Garden of our youth. Sadly, the Garden gate if forever closed to us.
We can no longer know the pure happiness of a world lost.
But we can know meaning...and moments of joy. And that can be enough!

Shabbat Shalom

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