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Burying Sam: Life after Death

December 1, 2016 | by Elissa Felder

Finding meaning after the death of my baby.

Twenty six years ago my little baby died during open-heart surgery. His death was an experience of loss I had never encountered with this level of magnitude. It was like slamming into a brick wall. It felt as if there were no more roads ahead, as if my life had ended along with the death of my little sweet baby Sam.

During Sam’s first six months of life, his needs and schedule were the focus of my life. Like any good mother of a new born, I was tired yet happy. That all suddenly came to a crashing end when the doctors could not fix Sam’s heart.

A dear friend was with us in the hospital that day, waiting with us as Sam underwent his "life-saving" surgery. When the outcome was so radically, unbelievably different than what we could ever have anticipated he was there to catch us. He gave us the space to scream deep existential, guttural cries of pain; cries that came from deep inside, from that place where life is supposed to be generated.

That place wasn't green and fertile; it was dark and scary. These screams were deep, foreign, unfamiliar sounds that I will never forget.

Our friend made phone calls, arranged the funeral and paved the way for the next few moments, hours, days...

That night a group of my friends who had known Sam in life gathered together to perform the Jewish ritual of tahara on his little body and prepared him for burial.

In Jewish tradition a body is washed and clothed in white, linen shrouds. The body is placed into the ground, like a seed planted in the earth for the future time when it will re-sprout and rejoin with its soul in the future.

This practice is called a "tahara" and is usually performed by an established chevra kadisha (Jewish burial society). This times my friends, with love and respect and I imagine many tears, bathed Sam for his burial the next day.

How I screamed that day and many days thereafter. At the height of that pain came an understanding that we don't run our lives. We are not in control of life or death. Loss and suffering is real and it hurts. It drains all of your energy and it can take away a lot of your desire to live.

At some point you have to choose to get up and to take the pain with you.

But at some point you have to choose to get up and to take the pain with you; to hold it inside and integrate it with every fiber of your being and let it change you into a new person with this trauma embedded inside of you. Life is never the same. You are now carrying something larger and heavier than you want to bear.

Somehow there is a way to keep moving on. There is hope that life is still worth living.

Maybe I can still live a meaningful and fulfilling life?

Maybe there will be other children one day?

Maybe life will one day feel good again with this trauma embedded inside?

One thing I have done since Sam’s death is perform tahara for Jewish women. It was a way to express how grateful I am for the kind act those ladies did for my son. I imagine that they did not want to go to the funeral home that night but they felt a duty.

For decades I regularly go to our local funeral homes with two other women to purify and prepare the women in our care. We dress them in shrouds and place them lovingly in coffins ready for their burials the next day.

Every now and then we perform tahara for people we know – our friends’ mothers or sisters or daughters, sometimes even for our friends.

A few months ago I performed tahara for my own grand-daughter. How?

With love; with tears freely flowing down my face; with respect and honor; with a direct confrontation with a reality that was almost too much to bear; with courage that this was a good and holy thing for me to do; with a desire to give to my daughter; with an understanding that there is something sacred about a grandmother preparing her little grand-daughter for burial; with a broken heart!

Tahara, preparing a Jewish person for burial, is holy work. It connects us to God. It connects us to the future. It says there is more to life than this world.

Our body is holy and in life it houses the soul, which is the breath of God. Death starts the process whereby the soul disconnects from the body. The body must be returned to the dust from where it came.

What matters most is what we choose to do on that bridge and the impact we make while crossing it.

Death allows us to see our lives as being part of a journey. Life is like a narrow bridge; we come from somewhere and we go somewhere. That bridge is of different lengths for each of us; for some it is very short and for others it is many years. What matters most is what we choose to do on that bridge and the impact we make while crossing it.

Out of my tragedy I’ve learned about the importance of burial and the spiritual, meaningful, loving, life-affirming work of the chevra kadisha.


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