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Dealing with Death

July 13, 2010 | by Rabbi Boruch Leff

Death ends a life, not a relationship.

The story was too bizarre, but it was true.

A few days ago, the AP reported that a 91-year-old widow, Jean Stevens of Wyalusing, PA, was found sitting on her couch in her home next to the bodies of her twin sister and her husband.

James Stevens, her husband of nearly 60 years, died in 1999, and June Stevens, her twin died in October 2009.

Mrs. Stevens had their embalmed corpses dug up and stored them at her house — in the case of her late husband, for more than a decade — tending to the remains as best she could until police were finally tipped off last month, much to her dismay.

"Death is very hard for me to take," Stevens told an interviewer.
"I think when you put them in the (ground), that's goodbye…," Stevens said. "In this way I could touch them, look at them and talk to them."

She said she had them dug up, both within days of burial. She managed to escape detection for a long time. State police haven't said who retrieved the bodies. A decision on charges is expected soon.

I have never heard of such a bizarre reaction to death. Though I don’t defend her actions, I feel sad for Mrs. Stevens and her inability to come to grips with her relatives’ deaths.

Unfortunately, I can relate all too well to her feelings.

Shocked Anew

I too was forced to say goodbye to my beloved mother, Mrs. Judi Leff, may she rest in peace, a few months ago.

I feel shocked anew each time I think of my mother not being in this world ever again.

My mother was diagnosed with late stage non-smoker’s lung cancer around five years ago. Ever since that horrible day when I found out the news of the diagnosis, I always knew of the possibility of my mother dying in the near future. I was hoping and praying she would beat the odds, and she actually did, living double the years originally projected. But in the back of my mind, I was mentally and emotionally preparing for losing her.

And yet, when she died, I was totally unprepared. I never really knew that my mother, who I loved so much, who had given me so much, could actually die. I never knew life without her. How could she die? Without my mother, the world didn’t seem like the world.

In the deepest recesses of my heart and soul, I didn't fully know that my mother could die.

Of course, I never denied the eventuality of death. I knew that every human being who has ever lived has also died, but I apparently never really incorporated that it could happen to one of my parents.

In the deepest recesses of my heart and soul, I didn't fully know that my mother could die. And the worst part about it was that I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

Death hit me like a ton of bricks and I felt as if I would never recover.

Road to Recovery

At some point, I started to think of what my mother really meant to me. I tried to live with my mother in my ear as often as I could. I could take her lessons with me wherever I would go.

My mother lived 67 years. She was an amazing and loving mother and grandmother. She did so much for so many people in her life. Hundreds and hundreds of people were deeply affected and saddened by her death.

People who felt as outcasts by the ‘regular’ community for various reasons told us that they felt comfortable talking to my mother because she had a way of accepting them, showing respect for them and making them feel good about themselves.

She was someone who constantly gave encouragement to all those around her. She first and foremost encouraged and gave strength to her family. She raised us to feel special, confident, and secure with who we are. She gave us the ability to feel solid in facing our challenges, believing in us which made us believe in ourselves. This is certainly the most important element of parenting: to provide one’s children with a secure and happy home so that they develop into content, confident and independent adults.

When I shared this with my rabbi, he commented, “That’s right. And all those many people who didn’t get this from their parents are in my office seeking counseling all day.”

My mother taught pre-school for approximately 33 years, deeply touching the lives of over 600 children. She constantly encouraged her students, co-workers and even her supervisors. She gave each child unconditional love and made each parent feel as if his/her child was her only concern. Whenever a child thought that something was too hard, whether it was navigating the monkey bars or writing his/her name, she would give that child the confidence needed to accomplish the goal.

One Thing at a Time

One of my mother’s most favorite expressions was ‘one thing at a time’ or ‘one day a time.’ Whenever I shared with her frustrations or problems I needed to tackle, she told me to take it easy and get things done one at a time. I can hear her voice with this phrase whenever I feel stressed out.

I learned how to deal with my mother’s death by focusing on the lessons she instilled in me. I could still live with her daily, albeit in a very different way.

As a great man once said, death ends a life, not a relationship.

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