Losing the Love of Your Life: My Dialogue with Rabbi Ahron Hoch
Diagnosed with stage-4 cancer, the indomitable Faigy Hoch died 10 months later, leaving a gaping hole for her husband, family and community. Her light continues to shine.
A decade ago Rabbi Ahron and Faigy Hoch (Rabbi and spiritual leaders of The Village Shul and Aish Hatorah Learning Centre in Toronto) faced the sudden illness of their beautiful son Menachem. An inoperable growth on his brain left him disabled and dependent. In their fear and grief, they guided their community through the appropriate responses and mindsets regarding how to cope with adversity.
Ten years later and Menachem is still thriving (despite prognosis that claimed otherwise). And then a year ago the indomitable and holy Faigy Hoch was suddenly diagnosed with stage-4 cancer. In the 10 months that she lived she maintained her incredible attitude of gratitude. Our community watched and waited with bated breath. We prayed for her. We did acts of kindness on her behalf. And yet the decree was not what we hoped. Faigy left this world and her blazing light was extinguished. We will never be the same. Yet she continues to teach and guide us along through the wisdom of her remarkable and loving husband, as he seeks to keep her messages alive.
What follows is my email correspondence with Rabbi Hoch. I believe you will greatly benefit from his wisdom.
Dear Rav Ahron:
As the Shabbat candles glowed, I thought of you and wondered after your heart. I know that without your beloved Faigy the light must seem dim regardless. I remembered all the words of comfort you gave to me when my father passed away. I remember the wisdom you taught me when I asked you what I should say to comfort a person who was in pain. You told me that when someone was in pain it was not the time for philosophical words; it was a time to be a source of comfort. And now you are in need of that comfort where no words can suffice.
Tell me; what do you say to yourself when you are suffering this profound loss? Does the wisdom of years of experience transfer to one's own pain? What does the master of comfort say to himself?
Respectfully, your student,
In terms of the question of whether the wisdom of years of experience transfers to my own pain – the answer is yes and no. Nothing can prepare you for the personal experience of grief. Until someone experiences it personally they cannot possibly understand. So the no is that intellectual preparation does not help one to fully understand the pain.
Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming experience of grief and the loss of my life partner.
As for the yes part – as a rabbi one of the frequent questions we deal with is why do bad things happen to good people. The question forced me to really work through the issue intellectually and to articulate the Jewish approaches (whereby you end up integrating the answers yourself). When Faigy and I were going through the challenge of our son's situation we used to say to each other, "What would have happened if we weren't equipped with those insights?" That's why it's important to seek answers to this question when life is fine and not when one is in pain and/or angry. Also, the experience of helping people through the pain of grief and loss (which is devastating) was intellectually helpful in my dealing and understanding my own grief.
However, NOTHING could have prepared me for the actual overwhelming experience of grief and the loss of my life partner. It's as if someone took a sledgehammer to my life and smashed it to smithereens. One has to use tremendous will power to not allow it to overwhelm oneself.
As far as what I tell myself, the first thing is that I realize that I have really only one choice: either the next stage of my life is going to be overwhelmed by my grief and loss and therefore will end up being mediocre, or that I be determined that the next stage of life (both for myself and my children and grandchildren) be a great one. I am determined to put in my efforts to make it a great one! That is highly motivating.
The second thing is that I know it's the Almighty's world, not mine, and that I have to accept His decree and realize that He loves me and that there is a bigger picture here. Therefore I must attempt to turn the darkness into light and constantly seek to get glimpses of the bigger picture. I am determined to do so.
I have had the same strange experience over the last little while where people ask me what I'm doing and I tell them. They say, "Well it's good that you're busy." This response can sound like life isn't inherently purposeful and "it's good that you're distracting yourself." This is not about distracting myself. It's about doing whatever I've always tried to do: to seek to understand what the Almighty wants from me; what do I think my mission is; what my current missions are - and then to go after them.
Setting those goals helps me deal with the grief.
The third thing is that I also know that Faigy's neshama (soul) is alive and well and that she would want me to lead and to have a great next stage of life. So I am focusing on bringing merits to her neshama and fulfilling her wishes.
The fourth is I find consolation in loving my family and in being loved by them. They are and have been a huge factor in my feeling that I can move on.
Does this answer your question?
Dear Rav Ahron,
Does it answer my question? Well, yes and no. Am I right in assuming that one prepares intellectually by understanding the spiritual mindset and arming oneself with the Jewish perspective, but that there is no way to prepare for emotional upheaval and devastation?
You said that searching to turn dark into light, that seeking to understand what the Almighty wants from you is giving you a way to move forward. But are you also saying there is no intellectual way out of the pain; rather one must channel it? Do you think having meaning offsets pain? You said it's not a distraction, but is it a comfort?
How would you suggest that a person who is in agony from grief determine a direction of meaning? You said you want to understand what the Almighty wants from you. Do you find that answer in the sorrows as well as in your gifts?
Your questions force me to think about things more deeply. No one can prepare you for unexpected loss. It's like someone trying to explain the power of the mother-child bond; it cannot be fully understood until one actually becomes a mother. So too, the overwhelming experience of loss and grief can only be understood fully when one actually goes through it.
Rabbi Ahron and Faigy Hoch
Secondly, to the extent that one has worked on their relationship with the Almighty – feeling His love, loving Him, trusting Him, and gaining a perspective on the issue of suffering – will determine how they will respond to the loss and manage the pain and grief. The issue here is not about learning how to feel no pain; the loss is a permanent one and the pain will always be there. The issue is learning how to live with the loss and the pain.
One of the great gifts that the Almighty has given us is what I call compartmentalization. We have the capacity when we are feeling loss and pain to be able to still focus on the positive and be motivated and even excited. The way I would describe it is that the sadness and the grief are in a box which I carry around. I know it's there and I am still doing my best to open up the positive box. This ability to compartmentalize is such a huge gift from God! Yes at times something is triggered and the grief and the overwhelming sense of loss bursts out of the box. But then you strengthen yourself and put it back in and get back to living.
The sadness and the grief are in a box which I carry around. I know it's there and I am still doing my best to open up the positive box.
I don't think it would be productive to focus on 'how do I get rid of the pain.' Instead, realize that if I pursue meaning, I can put the pain and grief in a box and be motivated to live positively, despite the pain.
As far as your question of what I would suggest to a person regarding determining a direction of meaning – my first answer would be that it has to be customized to who the person is and what their situation is. However, I know for myself that prior to Faigy becoming sick I was already planning and setting the stage for a new direction that had us excited. So getting back to that is quite motivating.
So I would suggest to a person to explore meaningful goals they are excited to pursue. It can mean doing something bold that will bring merit to the neshama. It can be setting up a tzedakah or free loan fund.
I know someone who after the devastating loss of a child started hosting weekly classes in her home and brought in well-known speakers. It forced her to be a hostess and get out of bed. It has enhanced the lives of hundreds of women and helped her get back on her feet. I know a young man who, as a teenager, was motivated to become a brain surgeon because of the loss of his friend. That motivation pushed him forward.
As far as your last question is concerned: I do believe that answers are to be found in in the loss itself. For instance, while we always cherished Faigy and knew how special she was, we have come to a new appreciation of her greatness by being forced to study her life and by seeing the incredible impact she had on so many. It is obvious to me that the Almighty wants me to inspire people by teaching the lessons there are to be learned from how she lived. I pray that the Almighty helps me to continue to see the opportunities to bring the wisdom and values Faigy embodied to light some of the darkness and that I merit to pursue and actualize them. I hope you find this helpful.
Dear Rav Ahron,
The values Faigy embodied! Can you share with me which values you most want to emulate so that we all might embody them? This will also help me to put in the work to keep those values alive in her precious merit. Sending you blessings and gratitude for your profound guidance.
I will tell you the one trait of Faigy's that is currently impacting very deeply: the power of gratitude as the basis of living an incredible life. People in Toronto were shocked to hear at the funeral that Faigy had lost her mother at 8 years old and her father at 18. How was it possible for someone who had gone through that in their first stage of life to be so happy and positive?
At the shiva my daughter-in-law shared with me that she actually asked Faigy that question. She answered that when she was 9 years old and feeling quite sad she heard her science teacher (in 1964) say that the way astronauts deal with surviving in space has a lot to do with mind over matter. She realized at that young age that she can learn not to be sad because she can train her mind to focus on the positive – mind over matter! At nine years old she figured out the power taught in Ethics of the Fathers that the happy person is the one who puts in the effort to appreciate the gifts that God gives us. It's our attitude that defines us, not the circumstances of life. She trained herself to be grateful to the point where it became part of her personality.
Faigy's last words were: "It's an amazing world!"
How deeply this was embedded became self-evident in the last months of her life. Despite knowing that she had very little chance to survive she told me more than once that she would not trade places with anybody. That if someone had told her as a teenager that she would have the type of marriage, children, grandchildren and live such a meaningful life she would never have believed it. In the last couple of weeks of her life she was so grateful that the pain was not as bad as anticipated that when she found herself awake at 4 a.m. she would have her "gratitude time" where she would mentally list all the gifts of her life.
Her last words were: "It's an amazing world!" She taught me that when you have gratitude you can tackle the darkest of situations with dignity and greatness.
My niece wrote the following: "Her life was a long string of one choice. She made a choice to be positive and stuck with that choice no matter what God sent her." She reveled in the various roles she played in life – wife, mother, rebbetzin, daughter-in-law, mother-in-law, grandmother – viewing all of them as an incredible privilege. She taught me that the key to an incredible life is being constantly grateful for the opportunities God gives us in each area of life.
Your offer to keep Faigy's values alive warms my heart!