After Losing the Love of Your Life: Rabbi Ahron Hoch on Life after Death
Tools for coping and moving forward in the face of pain.
Dear Rabbi Hoch,
Your emails to me have touched a chord. I've received notes from around the world telling me how valuable your wisdom is to them; how desperately they are seeking tools for coping and moving forward in the face of pain.
You talked about the box you carry and how you compartmentalize in order to proceed with your life. How can one enjoy life's blessings when one big compartment is, as you put it, "smashed to smithereens"? People feel almost disloyal when they smile or take pleasure after a great loss. I remember when Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof sings, "God would like us to be joyful even when our hearts lay panting on the floor." Where does this idea come from in Jewish sources?
I think we have to differentiate between being in a state of joy vs. being in a state of positivity. Currently, I do not walk around in a state of joy but I do walk around being positive. Also, there are different types of joy. There is a carefree type of joy (I've forgotten what that feels like) versus meaningful joy. When I see my grandchildren, I feel a deep joy and there is nothing disloyal in that. If anything, I would be disloyal to Faigy if I didn't feel feelings of joy or be happy around my grandchildren.
In a deep state of grief you can't walk around feeling carefree joy, but you can have moments of meaningful joy which brings honor to the person you've lost.
So when you're in a deep state of grief you can't walk around in a state of carefree joy, but you can have moments of deep meaningful joy which brings honor to the person you have lost. And one certainly has the capacity to walk around in a state of positivity despite the grief.
What works to put me in that positive state is the following: First, I put in the extra effort to be thankful in detail for my gifts.
Second, I try to look at the big picture. When Joseph was sold into slavery, there were sweet-smelling spices on the caravan that took him down to Egypt. That little touch was God telling him, "I am still with you." God is always with us, even in the dark times. He loves us and there is a bigger picture that we can't always see. I consciously look for God's spices, act upon them and thank Him for them.
Third, I have meaningful goals and new directions that excite me. It includes creating light from the darkness.
Fourth, I cherish my immediate and extended family and I cherish my relationship with close friends.
Fifth, I know Faigy's neshama, soul, is alive and well and I can deepen her eternal attachment to the Almighty through the good I do.
The last thought I will leave you with is that the Jewish people are a happy and funny people despite centuries of oppression and suffering. At their Passover Seders, locked in their ghettos, they said "Next year in Jerusalem!" They clung to their positive vision because they knew the Almighty loved them and that there was beautiful future in store for them and the world. This was the source of their ability to be a happy and positive people.
And by the way, I do believe that one day, God willing, I will be able to walk around in a state of joy and experience what carefree joy actually feels like!
Dear Rabbi Hoch,
I have learned from you that emotions are the result of thoughts and that one's emotions can be managed by re-framing. But I imagine that the intellectual rigor required to do so must be hard to summon when one is broken hearted. I know also that there are so many people who are angry with a God they now doubt exists, as though somehow loss and pain are proof that He doesn't exist. What say you to that?
Good morning Adrienne,
Let us first go back to the concept of compartmentalization. It does not work like a button that one can turn on and off. However, if one is determined to be able to do it they eventually will succeed. When my son first became ill I could not dance at weddings and had to leave after the chuppah. Eventually I was able to dance with joy and felt I was able to achieve something special, namely, to be happy for another person despite my fear and sadness over my son's situation.
Compartmentalization is achievable if one is determined and patient. There are two types of growth. There is the growth we chase after and relish. This is the growth that we actively choose. And then there is the significant growth that comes from circumstances we never wanted. It's a growth that in some ways is forced upon us. Sometimes that growth is even greater.
Regarding anger at God, the Talmud teaches an important insight. Based on a verse from Job, the Rabbis (Baba Basra 16a) learn that even if a person blasphemes God out of pain, God does not react. It may not be advocated but it is understood. Many years ago, I noticed the following cycle. People get angry at God, then feel guilty about their anger which makes them even more angry at God! If one feels angry at God, He understands and He can handle it.
If one feels angry at God, He understands and He can handle it.
Furthermore, Jewish sources teach us that God is in tremendous "pain", not only over the Jewish people’s collective pain but over the individual’s pain. The key is to realize that anger at God is an unproductive rabbit hole which leads to bad places. We become embittered people who believe life is meaningless and random. Is this the role model we want to be for those we influence?
The key is to work out the anger with a mentor or wise friend and then live one day at a time saying, I am going to be the best I can be today. Pragmatically, there is only one choice: Am I going to sink or swim? Am I going to attempt to push through the pain and strive to live with meaning, or am I going to remain angry and embittered?
Hope this is helpful,
Hi Rabbi, me AGAIN!
I understand that there is only the choice to sink or swim, and sometimes we can barely tread water. Can you share with me what kind of things you say to yourself at the times you’re struggling to just keep your head above water? Any phrases or meditations or even particular prayers or readings that help you get back in the pool?
I am so grateful to you that you have gone outside of your comfort zone to answer these questions for me.
One phrase I say is, "Be the best you can be today" and another is "What do I need to do today?" Taking things one day at a time makes the darkness easier to handle as you reduce the overwhelming situation to bite-sized pieces. It makes it much easier to focus on what needs to be done that day.
A powerful three-word Hebrew prayer has been very helpful. It is "Leshuascha kivisi Hashem– God I hope for and seek Your salvation." I also found the following saying in the Talmud very important. The Rabbis teach us, “Even if a sword is on your neck do not hold yourself back from seeking and hoping for God's mercy." When things are very dark oftentimes the natural choice is one of hopelessness, thereby descending into darkness. The Rabbis are saying do not give into that temptation. Put in the effort to seek God's mercy and focus on what needs to be done on your part no matter the odds.
This helped me immensely during the last stage of Faigy's life.
As always, I hope this is helpful. Take care.