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Pivoting from Funeral to Wedding

April 3, 2022 | by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

How do you change gears from the death of a young person to the celebration of a marriage of two young people?

Last week our community gathered to say goodbye to our beloved Corey Reichenberg, a brave, tenacious, spunky, and special young man. Since the age of three, Corey battled Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Shortly before his Bar Mitzvah, he began to need a wheelchair. Corey never felt sorry for himself, never took advantage of his disability, and never let it bring him down. He was funny, friendly, and focused on living life to its fullest. He didn’t know how long he would have in this world, but he did know that whenever he left it, he wanted to have made it a more beautiful place, and he most certainly did.

The funeral was heartbreaking, and the beautiful tributes offered by his father, sisters, and friends brought tears to everyone’s eyes. The way the timing worked out, I needed to go directly from the cemetery to a magnificent wedding of two special souls from our shul. The black suit I wore worked for both the funeral and wedding; the only thing that needed to be changed was my tie.

Changing one’s tie is easy, but changing gears from a tragedy to a celebration, from the death of a young person to the celebration of a marriage between young people, is much harder.

Is there a way to honor both the high and the low, the joy and the sorrow?

When I arrived at the wedding venue and parked, I changed my tie but still couldn’t get out of the car. I sat there trying to pivot my emotions. I was somewhat conflicted: Is toning down joy in light of a tragic loss fair to the celebrants? Is unleashing unbridled joy respectful to the grieving family and to the honor of the soul that was just lost? How does one compartmentalize feelings? Is there a way to honor both the high and the low, the joy and the sorrow?

As I sat there struggling, it occurred to me that I had just heard the answer at the funeral, twice.

When Corey’s father Ed spoke, he shared:

I want to tell you that Thursday (when Corey died), as difficult and as painful as it was, it was not as bad as the day 21 years earlier when we received the diagnosis that our beautiful, sweet 3-year-old had an incurable disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy. We were devastated, but it so happens that on that very evening our friends had an upsherin (three-year-old’s first haircut) for their son. We decided then and there that we would not shut off from the community but rather we would make our life with Corey as normal as we could. We went to that celebration.

I had a strong suspicion I knew whose upsherin it was. Twenty-one years prior, there had been a wonderful, elaborate celebration by someone I knew was their friend. Immediately following the funeral, that father gave Ed the biggest hug and said, “You were so happy for us that night, you added to our celebration. I had no idea what you were going through that very day.”

It was the hardest day of their lives. They had received devastating news that radically changed their lives forever. If ever there was an excuse, and if there was an event one could get out of, it was an upsherin on a day you learned your child that same age had a significant disability.

But Corey’s parents made the conscious and mindful choice to live life, to show up, to choose happy, even while still finding time to be sad.

This is who the Reichenbergs are. In her eulogy, Corey’s sister Naomi shared:

We were at a conference for muscular dystrophy in Baltimore, Maryland, and it was the final night of the conference. I was only eight years old and the founder of Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, Pat Furlong, was speaking. Pat had two boys who had passed away from Duchenne which is why she started the organization. She was speaking about her boys and she mentioned their deaths.

I turned to my parents in disbelief. “Corey's gonna die?” I uttered those words with the utmost shock. I ran out of the ballroom in tears and my mom ran after me. I went into a bathroom stall and she followed. She came in and I expressed to her how I wish I could have at least found out differently. She told me she wished the same.

She then went on to say, “Naomi, I know this is hard and you’re sad because he’s your brother and you love him but we can’t be sad all the time.” She said, “You’re going to wipe your tears and you’re going to go back out there and we are going to give Corey the best life possible and the happiest life possible in the time he has because otherwise, it’s not worth it. Otherwise, life wouldn’t be worth living.”

From that moment forward I was determined to bring happiness to everyone around me. All because of my mom's superhuman strength, I was then able to realize what I love doing most, making others happy. Their strength specifically over these last few months has been unwavering.

Sitting in the parking lot outside the wedding, I realized that if the Reichenbergs could pivot on that day 21 years earlier, certainly I could transition to enjoy the wedding that evening. The choice to compartmentalize is not disrespecting or being insensitive to a crisis or loss or to someone you love. It is finding the resolve to push through, to choose to live life, to change not only our tie, but also our outlook.

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