The Shock Of Death


The symphony of our talks is now starting to take shape. In the first movement we discussed the actual death, the dealing, disposing and laying to rest the remains of a dear loved one. I see that moment in my mind's eye as the first instant of a Big Bang. When Rabbi Brawer introduced this dimension I, like probably many of you, felt reduced to a stunned silence. I chose to respond in the only way I could, from the inside of myself. By reading my two letters I was showing my heart and sharing with you my own vulnerable feelings as a human being when confronted with this issue. There is nothing like death to teach us about oneself and one's own deepest feelings.

Tonight is the second movement of the symphony. The Shiva represents for me the first ripples after the Big Bang. I see the process of mourning as having two stages. The first one is a stage of adaptation and acceptance. What we are looking at today is the first stage which is: How does a bereaved person assimilate such a colossal event? Before we can understand what a bereavement is we need to focus first on what we are. When we are born we are plunged into a world of relationships. Our relations with others are what gives us an idea of who we are in the world and they shape our views and our sense of ourselves. As we grow from babyhood to infancy, from infancy to childhood and from childhood to youth, from youth to adulthood and from adulthood to old age, our perceptions change and our understanding of who and what we are also changes.

These relations with others are felt from the inside of ourselves as feelings and these feelings change according to the person and the situation. The closer someone is to us the more feelings we invest with them. A parent, a sibling, a spouse or an offspring have an enormous investment of feelings. As we all know, no two relations are the same, my relation with my father or with my sister is not the same as your relation with your father or sister but they do have something in common and that is the emotional investment that they carry.

These special others are the cornerstones, the structure around which we build our sense of who we are and by extension our sense of reality. I remember reading when I was a young man an article by Jean Paul Sartre about the Jewish question. In it he was arguing that for a Jew to know himself as such there had to be the eye of a Gentile. It was in this contrast that identity was highlighted. It is the same with our families. In order for us to know ourselves we need others.

So what happens to us when someone who is close to us dies? In my experience death is experienced first and foremost as a blow or maybe, it would be more accurate to call it a body blow. Blows come in all shapes and sizes and have different levels of impact. Death is a major psychological blow and as such it will first knock us out of balance. The closer the deceased person is to us the more we are likely to feel the impact of their passing away and the more we will be affected by it. 

The first effect that a death blow has on us is that it stuns us. The first impact of the death of a loved one often makes us feel confused and incredulous. It will take time to assimilate and process the death of someone we love. It is as if an important part of who we are has been taken away from us leaving in it's place what appears to be a huge emptiness. How one responds to this first shock will determine to an important extent how the mourning process will proceed. I have observed that quite often a death is accompanied by an initial feeling of numbness on the part of the bereaved. This numbness is usually a merciful act on the part of our psyche which allows us some breathing space before the full realization of the loss sets in. There is no way of knowing from beforehand how a death will affect us. It will depend on the state of our minds and the impact it has on our lives. Together with the numbness I have observed that the mourner experiences a state of heightened awareness and sensitivity. It is as if the impact of words and gestures acquire a new significance at this time. Everything seems to get heightened and gets implanted in such a way that it will remain in the memory of the bereaved person for a long time to come. I think that the reason for this is because what occurs in these early days are the first experiences that the bereaved person is having with the actuality of the death itself. This is why the early days after a passing away are of crucial importance.

Rabbi Brawer has told us tonight how the Jewish religion in it's wisdom deals with this situation. It creates a tight structure around the bereaved person, thus it provides a safe container to hold tight the ripples that occur after the explosion. It is not my place to pass comment on the religious merit of the Shiva but what I can undeniably see is it's healing potential and how it provides an emotional safety valve for what are potentially very violent and destructive feelings. At the moment of death the Jewish religion and it's Halaka takes over. This means that at the moment of greatest sadness and shock the full authority, credibility and wisdom of our forefathers steps in, it comes to guide and console the bereaved. It does so with a sensitive and firm hand by laying out clearly the do's and don'ts and explaining how to fill the in-between spaces. 

Through the Shiva the sadness of the personal loss gets shared with the Jewish community. In this way a personal loss becomes also a public loss. This allows for a joint expression of feelings in an empathic atmosphere. 

The early venting of these dark thoughts and feelings has incalculable healing power. We should be mindful that this wise old way is only appropriate for a tiny minority of people, a bit like psychoanalysis. The Shiva has a place of honor in the Jewish psyche but only for those who observe the Jewish tradition. The Shiva only makes sense within a Jewish context.

Other traditions also have their own customs and rituals for dealing with death and loss and these too also contain great insight and healing potential. But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, it always boils down to the same thing. The bottom line is the negotiation of the relation between the dead person and the mourning person.