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My Brother's Death Threw Me into a Maelstrom of Grief and Questioning

February 17, 2019 | by William Wolfowich

But something surprising emerged from all the chaos.

The day my brother died I woke up in a beachside hostel in sunny San Diego and spent the night with my head rested on the cold white walls outside the morgue in the basement of Toronto's Sunnybrook hospital.

Adam had been battling cancer for three years. He was fighting this thing with everything he had, all the while inspiring everyone around him with his will to live and his unceasing passion for life.

Adam at the Kotel

He was admitted to the hospital for his final fight the day I flew out to California. He insisted that I stick to my original plans and go with my best friend who was moving to Vancouver. Adam had spent a few weeks there in the winter before being released on December 31 2015, dancing out of the hospital to spend what he knew would be his last "New Year's Eve" at home days after his 36th birthday. It was a special night. Filled with food, music, candles and close friends.

It was April 28, 2016, the day I got a message from my mother: You should come home. She didn’t have to say why. In a daze, barely able to speak, I called the airline and made the quickest plans to get back to Toronto.

I took one last walk on the Pacific Beach boardwalk. I stood there watching the waves crash into the rocks and then fade back into the ocean, only for a new wave to follow, smash into the shore, and fade away.

I packed my bags, hopped into a taxi to the airport and said goodbye to my best friend. The trip was a final hoorah of sorts. The first goodbye of the day.

Good times with my brother, Adam (L)

My father greeted me at Pearson airport and told me that the nurse said Adam had 24 hours to live. We raced to the hospital.

We got to Sunnybrook and I ran to Adam’s room. I saw my two other brothers outside the room in a state of panic. Other relatives were outside the door. I ran by them and into the room, 30 seconds before his pulse stopped.

He waited for me.

The moments following were heavy and frantic. I went down to the cafe to get water for everyone, then I went to the spot outside the hospital where Adam and I would hang out during my night visits. It was the last place we spoke.

He died on a Friday night, which meant that due to Shabbat and the final night of Passover on the next day, the usual proceedings following the death of a Jew had to be delayed. His body could not be moved.

A family friend who was with us in the hospital explained that according to Jewish tradition the deceased can’t be left alone while awaiting burial. Without hesitation or knowing what I was getting myself into, I decided to stay there with him. He would have done the same for me.

I spent the next two days outside the morgue. Surrounded by death made me ask a number of questions about life.

In the middle of the night the nurse came in and told me they needed to free up the room and move my brother’s body to the morgue in the basement of the hospital. I went down with them and planted myself on the floor where I spent the next two days, the quiet punctuated by the automatic doors occasionally opening with a stretcher wheeled in with the morgue’s newest guest.

Me with my older brother

It was a haunting and incredibly powerful experience. Surrounded by death made me ask a number of questions about life and the existence of God.

Sunday night my sister and brother in-law, who observe Shabbat, came to the hospital. They told me how big of a mitzvah it was that I spent the nights there and described the traditional Jewish view of what happens to a person after they die. I found it interesting that our good deeds in this world could help propel Adam's soul higher up in heaven. It partially explained that odd connection I experienced to my brother as I sat outside the morgue.

They gave me a rundown of the funeral, the shiva and the Shloshim, the 30-day mourning period where I would go to synagogue every day to recite the mourners’ Kaddish. No hanging out with friends, no music, no movies, completely engulfing myself in the grieving process. If this would somehow help my brother’s soul get as high as it could go, I was all in. Little did I know the profound effect it would have on me.

Adam in Israel

It was a sad time but something unexpected began to coalesce: I started feeling spiritually connected. I went to my sister's house every Friday night for Shabbat dinner. My brother-in-law and I would go shul and then head back to their place for a beautiful meal where we would spend hours discussing meaningful topics, exploring the purpose of life and reading about practical ways to refine our character traits. Occasionally they would have a Rabbi over and I would bombard him with my questions. I experienced moments of that same spiritual connection I had felt in the morgue and throughout the shiva.

Rabbi Chaim Hildeshaim with my brother
two days before his death

Eight months later I went to Israel for the first time on a Birthright trip. I began to feel a pride in my Judaism in a way that I had never felt before. The land, the people, the food, the music. My preconceived notions about Jews and Judaism quickly vanished.

After two months in Israel, with a one month stay in South East Asia, my visa was expiring and it was time to head back home. But a flame was lit in my heart. I knew I had to come back to Israel, and I felt a massive urge to help other young Jewish Canadians take pride in their Judaism regardless of how Jewish they felt. I decided the best way to do that was by leading the same trip that fostered that love for Israel and Judaism in me. I became a Birthright madrich.

This past summer I had a blast leading my first birthright trip, followed by a month in Tel Aviv. Then I made my way to Jerusalem to check out some classes at Aish. My Jewish pride was growing but I still viewed Judaism as a religion like any other, it just happened to be the one I was born into. Aish was having their monthly Discovery Seminar that delves into the question: Is God the author of the Torah? Not only were they claiming that Judaism is different than every other religion, but the religion itself demands that one build a rational basis for belief. No blind leaps of faith here.

The classes spoke to me and I was intrigued. I decided I owed it to myself and my commitment to seek truth to stick around longer and learn more about my heritage. At Aish I spend my days with a group of diverse and amazing guys passionately arguing, learning and deepening my understanding about the meaning of life. I don’t know where exactly I’m headed with all this, but I’m enjoying the journey.

Me battling things out at Aish HaTorah

Losing a close sibling has a massive potential for spinning one's life into chaos and friction. Looking back at the last two years in the midst of all the grief, pain and discordant notes caused by the death of my brother, something surprising emerged from the chaos: a newfound sense of harmony and peace.

Like symphony that weaves together a whirlwind of competing instruments and sounds, I can see how my responses to Adam’s death resulted in me being here, living in Jerusalem’s Old City, forging my personal connection to God and Judaism, and learning so much about myself. And in this magical place where Heaven and earth kiss, I can sometimes feel my brother watching me, rooting for me, and I hope gratified by the choices I’m making.

A Postscript:

It's been over three years since I wrote this article and I'm still learning at Aish in Jerusalem. What an unexpected and incredible journey it has been!

My pursuit for truth has turned into a thirst for Jewish wisdom, learning about leadership, and the responsibility and power we have as individuals to shape the future of the Jewish people. This is something that is emphasized at Aish.

My daily grind starts with the early morning roars of the study hall, jam-packed with Jews fighting for truth, and ends with late night DMCs, deep meaningful conversations, with my friends that have become family. I relish the opportunities to connect with, inspire and teach Jews from all over the world who come to visit the Aish World Center or spend a few weeks in the yeshiva deepening their Jewish heritage.

The most significant update in my life is that just over two months ago I married the woman of my dreams! We come from different backgrounds (and countries – I’m from Canada and she’s an Israeli American) and we share a passion for spiritual growth, Judaism and helping Jews any way we can.

Standing under the chuppah at our wedding in Jerusalem, I thought of all of my ancestors that came before me and how they must be looking down at me, proud that I have chosen to embrace the heritage they fought so hard to hold on to.

For over 45 years Aish has helped millions of Jews around the world connect with their roots through timeless Jewish wisdom.

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