Living with grief
Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 10 October 2019
It is thought that the trees of any forest share a secret language which they use to communicate with one another. The German forester Peter Wohlleben uncovered a system of cooperation whereby trees of the same species are connected by the roots, which grow together to form a network. Their root tips have highly sensitive brain-like structures that can distinguish whether the root that it encounters in the soil is a root of its own species or the root of another species.
Trees communicate in this way to help preserve their forest. If a sick tree were to die, it would create a gap in the canopy meaning the climate becomes hotter and drier, worse for the trees that remain. So, if the roots of one tree encounter a tree of its own kind that is sick, the root system creates a flow of sugar molecules from healthy trees to sick trees so that they will have an equal measure of food and energy available. Healthy trees have been known to keep other trees alive for more than four centuries, supporting them in the production of chlorophyll even when they are unable to produce leaves.
The trees of the forest are a bit like our community. We rally around when someone is going through a bereavement, or a time of hardship. We know how to batch cook, so that mourners do not go hungry. We know how to station ourselves at the urn of a shiva house so that no one is left without a cup of tea. Ultimately, we know how to be present and available for those who need us, an example of the ahavat chinam – the gratuitous love – that Rabbi Josh spoke about this morning
Many have said that the Jewish community do the process of mourning well, that our Jewish traditions parallel the modern psychological understanding of the emotional process of mourning.
Yet our structure around death can mean that our grief feels bound, confined to the time periods set into place by tradition and to the moments in which we are categorised as ‘mourners’.
In reality, although grief is an emotion that we associate with death, it is not exclusive to death. There is no escaping the certainty of human life, that we are all aging from the very day we are born, and that at every stage of this journey we grieve for the things that we can not do, that we could do before. We grieve throughout our lives when our expectation does not meet our reality, when the future we envisaged feels as if it has been stolen from us.
We are coming to the end of our ten days of reflection. This time for many can feel riddled with personal pain and anguish, for this time is meant for contemplation and revisiting the expectations we had from the last year. At this moment we are faced with grief, not just for the people we have lost to accompany us on our way, but also for the time we have lost, for the things we cannot do.
We grieve for the job we were so excited about last year, but were made redundant from following staffing cuts. We grieve for the trip we were planning to take to lands undiscovered, that our recent diagnosis made impossible. We grieve for the person who has shared every break fast with us, but is no longer sitting at our table.
We grieve for the expectation, when faced with the reality that does not match it.
Psychotherapist and bereavement specialist, Julia Samuel MBE, writes in her book, ‘Grief Works’ that ‘grief is intensely personal, contradictory, chaotic and unpredictable internal process.’ She teaches that ‘If we are to navigate it, we need to find a way to understand and live with the central paradox: that we must find a way of living with a reality that we don’t want to be true.’
Each of us in our own way is grieving, feeling the loss of something that we craved and living in a reality that we didn’t choose and that we don’t want. For me personally, this year has been one with a completely different reality to that which I expected standing on this very bimah one year ago. A whirlwind of doctors appointments and a diagnosis for my mother of multiple myeloma, an incurable but treatable blood cancer in January, has meant that I have learnt quickly that it is OK to not be OK, to feel grief even when not faced with death.
I do not grieve for my mum, she is adjusting to a new normal. But I grieve for my childhood image of her, the one where she was indestructible. I grieve for the hair she lost during chemotherapy, the physical marker of her illness. And I grieve for the year I hoped for, my first year of marriage in which I did not expect hospital visits, uncertainty and fear.
The year may have been tough for many members of our Alyth family, and at times the grief that we are faced with can feel all consuming.
Yet, just like the trees of the forest, we are never alone in our struggle. Surrounded by our network of roots, channelling resources to us when we are feeling low, we are sustained, able to live with grief, able to carry on.
The Talmud tells a story of the time when the second Temple was destroyed. It noted that there was an increase of ascetics, who would not eat meat or drink wine. Rabbi Yehoshua joined them to discuss their practices. He said to them: to not grieve at all is impossible, but to grieve excessively is also impossible.
I believe Rabbi Yehoshua was trying to teach us that we need to find a way to continue living whilst we grieve, to embrace our pain but to not be bound by it, for often in finding a way to live with the pain, we enable ourselves to heal. Pain can be a remarkable agent of change.
Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that when experiencing the pain of loss, “The question we should be asking is not ‘why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?’ That is really an unanswerable, pointless question. A better question would be ‘Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it…?’”
Grief may impose change on our lives but the persistent feelings of anger, anxiety or fear generated by our grief leads us to question what is wrong. It can be the driver we need to find the things that make us feel happy again.
This year we are once again full of expectations. Yet time may have dampened our spirits, we hold our expectations with anxiety, nervous to face the reality of the path ahead.
But we also hold the gift of time. And in time we can allow ourselves to grieve in our own way and at our own pace, to take the steps towards a new normal, and to know that whilst we cannot fix everything, we can change and we can endure.
This year, may we embrace the things that make us feel better, and commit to doing them regularly, even when we don’t want to. May we practice self- compassion and self-awareness, not holding ourselves in comparison with others to grieve in the ‘right’ way, but rather find ways to express our grief, to talk about it, to not shy away from it.
And when it feels too much, may we be sustained by the network of roots around us. May we feel the canopy of our community embrace us. And may we be strengthened by its channels of resources and its support.