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Confessions of a Grieving Heart

June 11, 2020 | by Yisroel Juskowitz

My brother’s sudden, unexpected death has left within me a gaping hole.

A month ago, I received a phone call that changed my life forever: my brother had suddenly, unexpectedly died. To say that the news hit me like a ton of bricks would be an understatement; it was as if I had been hit by a freight train boring down on me at top speed. I felt as if a dark impenetrable cloud had descended upon my life.

When I ripped my shirt at his gravesite, I felt as if I had torn a hole right into my soul. I felt I would never experience happiness again. I would never laugh again, I would never sing again, and I would never love again. And I would never want to have a relationship with God again.

Although my brother was a happy, healthy, fun loving guy, he suffered from years of chronic low back pain. He had two back surgeries in the past for herniated discs and recently the pain had returned. He was trying physical therapy, but to no avail. As a last resort, he took some strong prescription medication and had a fatal drug interaction with something else he was taking at the time. By the time he was found, his heart had stopped and he was unresponsive.

Me and my older brother

My older brother was more than my brother to me, he was my best friend. A thousand memories began constantly playing through my mind. Growing up, wrestling together on the living room floor, watching movies together, playing wiffle ball in our backyard with the neighborhood kids, reading scary stories to each other. My brother was my superhero, a gentle giant would always be there to care for me and protect me. As we got older, the dynamics of our relationship inevitably changed but the bond only got stronger. We talked almost daily, we were there for each other in difficult times and celebrated together in joyous times. Losing him left a large gaping hole in my heart.

Grief is mourning the loss of a relationship. At times it can be debilitating. I remind myself that it comes from a place of love. In fact, the stronger the love, the stronger the grief. The Talmud teaches that for every sickness, there exists an antidote somewhere in the world. So, what is the antidote for grief? Ironically it’s what caused the grief to begin with, namely, love. An outpouring of love, doing positive acts in the memory of the deceased, helps to heal. Receiving love and care from friends and family during the mourning period. And feeling the love one has for the deceased by sharing their memories and keeping this love alive. And my relationship with my brother has not ended; I talk to him every day and know he’s listening.

My brother with his two daughters

Sometimes we don’t fully know a person until they leave this world. After my brother died, I received hundreds of messages from friends, family, and coworkers on how my brother touched their lives, often in incredible ways. My brother had the great capacity to love unconditionally. I heard countless stories of him helping people, many of whom he barely knew, whether it was finding someone a job, Shabbat hospitality, helping someone through a divorce, or visiting someone sick in the hospital.

In addition to love, the other antidote is emunah, faith. Faith is not a crutch; it takes enormous inner strength to achieve faith. Rather, faith is a comfort. It is understanding that the soul is something that is very real, in fact, more real than what our naked eye sees. We are not bodies who happen to contain a soul, but the other way around. And the soul is very much aware of what occurs in this world after it leaves its earthly existence. And they are in a much better place than they ever were in, when they were here, as they are now soaring to their true potential, unshackled by their physical bodies. It is understanding that the World to Come is indeed the World of Truth, as it is called in the Talmud, for it is there, and only there, that all of the questions and struggles of this world are fully answered and we finally achieve the clarity we seek. It is understanding that our world is seeing the wrong side of the quilt, and the Next World is seeing the beautiful tapestry that exists on the Other Side.

My brother holding my son

The person who helped take care of the graveside arrangements shared with me an incredible insight. To comfort a mourner we say the word HaMakom, which means the Place. We say, “May the Place comfort you together with all other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The Place refers to God for He is the Omnipresent One who is everywhere. He is the Place for the universe. Although paradoxically He is the One who allowed the death to occur, it is only He Who can provide the comfort that is needed. Some pain is too great for humans alone to help and we have no choice but to turn to Him. Only His Presence can fill the gaping place in one’s heart.

We are about to mark the Shloshim, the 30-day period since my beloved brother’s passing. As customary, his friends and family are finishing the entire set of Mishna so his soul could have a further elevation. The Lubavitcher Rebbe used to say that learning Torah in the memory of a loved one is like sending a care package to their soul, for the soul craves much more than what the physical world has to offer.

A portrait of my brother that I painted

I am finally beginning to see that the once impenetrable dark cloud which descended upon my world is penetrable after all. I am beginning to see that once again I can laugh, I can love, I can sing. The same God who created the heart which has the capacity to grieve also created it with the capacity to heal.

I believe grief serves as the ultimate crucible to our spiritual selves. When we eventually emerge from it, we are different than before. I love my family much more and never take them for granted. I appreciate the great gift of life more than ever. And my relationship with God is stronger and my purpose in life has never been more clear.

May Ephraim Meir ben Yechiel Mordechai have an illuyei neshama, an elevation of the soul, and may his memory be a blessing for all of Israel.

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