Thursday, September 11, 2014

Death Is Not "The Worst Thing About Life"

On this most difficult day I am thinking about death.

Last night, on my way out of my graduate class in Jersey City, a friend texted me to let me know our next door neighbor's infant son had died suddenly. I spent the long drive home talking to Ruth. When I got home at 11 p.m., I sat in my car in the driveway, crying and still talking with her and noting that all the lights were on in the family's home and all the shades drawn. My friend and I were grieving, trying to make sense of the unimaginable.

"There has been a lot of death lately," I told her.

"It's the worst thing about life," she answered with a sigh.

At that moment, it struck me I did not agree with her at all. Death, I thought, is not the worst thing about life. But I did not respond. It was late, we two were drained from grief, full days of work and parenting. We were having trouble speaking. Besides, I am not in the business of getting into theological debates with dear friends.

For me, this has been a summer of loss. My friend Sarah died unexpectedly in July, a death that so struck Ruth, who had never met her, that she cried for days. Sarah was pregnant with her fifth child.

Earlier this week, my husband and I made a shiva call to the home of a former colleague of Greg's who died in his sleep. We stood in crowded living room, shoulder to shoulder with his widow, his two grown sons, his rabbi and many neighbors as they prayed the Kaddish. Like Greg, Larry had survived the September 11 attacks; Larry had been riding into the World Trade Center on the PATH trains when the planes hit the towers. They rarely spoke of that awful day, but, in the ways of men, felt that bond deeply whenever they encountered one another. He and his wife had just sold their home down the block from us a few days before and were planning to retire to Manhattan.

A few days ago, I stood on the sidewalk in front of our home, talking with my young neighbor and admiring her baby Joseph's beautiful eyes and chubby cheeks and talking to her about the baby's feeding schedule and temperament and how his older sister was adjusting to his presence. I did not want to hold him just yet because he was so fresh from heaven. And now he is gone from this world.

As someone who grew up in the Catholic faith and follows it still as best I can, I have never believed that, despite the sense of lives cut short, that Death has the final say. I believe in the One who summoned us with immeasurable love from utter nothingness into being and that our hope is, when we die we might encounter His face.

I believe that those who leave us are still with us and that our relationship, while transformed, is not over. They can pray for us.

I believe that Death is not the worst that happens to us. Instead, I believe the worst thing about life is to live without understanding we are loved. We were loved into being and are loved without measure and through no effort of our own. The sufferings we endure are not meaningless if they draw us closer to the One who formed us in our mothers' wombs.

Last night, as we were finishing our phone call, my friend apologized for texting me such difficult news just before my long drive home. I told her I appreciated knowing about Joseph's death because then I could pray for his soul that night. With all my difficulty in finding words last night, I managed to say to my friend that I believe our prayers have agency.  They do more than soothe our grief.

However, with all that I believe,  it was still tough this morning to leave our home.  The shades were still drawn next door. My neighbor Avi's car was still parked in front of his home even though he leaves for work the same time I do. I cried and prayed all the way to work that somehow, somehow, these parents will find a way through unbearable grief and that they would be lifted up by the presence of the One who made us.

A Kaddish for Baby Joseph

May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which he has created according to his will. May his Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future; and say, Amen.

May his great name be blessed, forever and ever.

Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored elevated and lauded be the Name of the holy one, 

Blessed is he- above and beyond any blessings and hymns, Praises and consolations which are uttered in the world; and say Amen. May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen.


  1. May Joseph's memory be a blessing. I am so sorry to hear of this loss on an already painful day. I, too, have heard of many losses lately. Love your friends and family. Make sure they know.

    1. Michelle: as always you have such wise words. What a treasure is your friendship.