Death, Grief and Love
Platform address by Dr. Joseph Chuman, leader of the Ethical Culture Society
of Bergen County, November 4, 2012
Last year my professional life reached a milestone: For the first time in my 44-year career, the annual number of funeral and memorial services at which I have officiated surpassed the number of weddings I have performed. In the distant past, the number of weddings I have had the pleasure to participate in was large, maybe 20 a year or more; the number of funerals, just a handful. More recently, the calls for weddings has dropped precipitously to just a few annually, while memorials and funerals to maybe 10 or more.
There are two reasons for this. The major reason is to be found in the Styles section of the Sunday New York Times. Until recently, Ethical Culture provided a wedding service that was almost unique: Weddings in which the couple was invited to participate in creating their own ceremony, with their own readings, music, family members and personal values included. By contrast, today there seem to be innumerable groups and officiating individuals, some of whom I conclude can be ordained for a fee by organizations that exist primarily online. Many offer an approach similar to our own, devoid of the liturgies and trappings required by the traditional religions. So liberalized has the wedding function become that my favorite wedding announcement reads as follows: “The wedding was celebrated by the bride’s uncle, Marvin, who was authorized by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to officiate at this one wedding.” I am not necessarily saying there is anything wrong with the democratization of the wedding function in moving it out of the exclusive authority of the clergy and justices of the peace, only that it eliminates Ethical Culture from what had been almost an exclusive niche.
The second reason, which serves as a prelude to my talk this morning, is simply that as the years pass, the list of people I have known who have reached the end of their lives has grown larger and, with it, the request that I speak at their funeral.
There are several personal observations I want to share this morning, but let me start with the following: With the passage of time, some things get easier, but officiating at funerals is not one of them. Each loss, and encountering each grieving survivor, revives feelings of sadness and compounds the reality of the absence of those whom I have known and who are gone. But those who are gone do not totally leave. They remain to populate my mind, and my mind has grown very crowded with the memories of people I knew and loved, and with whom I have significantly shared my life. This is true of family members and it is also true of members of this community. I have never seen Ethical leadership as merely a job, nor have I been able to insulate my relations and feelings for others behind a barrier of professionalism, even if such a distancing were desirable or possible. The death of each member summons the need to cope with the emotions that attend that loss, and the loss, needless to say, is forever.
True for many: What is true for me is also true for many of you. For those of you who have made this community your home over several decades, you no doubt feel sadness at the deaths of all those good people whose lives enriched this community and made our own lives richer as well. Some were so tightly identified with the Ethical Society that it does not quite feel like the same place without them. Yet the community endures and if there is an element that lightens the sadness, it is the realization that the community does endure because those members past believed in it, and its mission, and so earnestly devoted themselves to it. This realization, speaking for myself, does mitigate the sadness, but it does not fully overcome it. I have never been a romantic about death, or casual in my treatment of it. Death is real, it is almost always unwanted, and the loss occasioned by it is an undeniable fact. There is sorrow in this, which, in my view cannot be glibly wished away and needs to be coped with.
It is my increasing encounters with the deaths of those I have known, and those who I have not known, and with their loved ones, that inspire me to share some of my thoughts with you on a topic that makes most of us uncomfortable to think about. But, it is my belief that it is the special role of a religious organization of any kind to reflect on death and try to be bring meaning and maybe at least some consolation to this most universal of all experiences.
This morning I want to briefly reflect on death and the grief that it engenders, and how we can perhaps better cope with it, when someone whom we have loved and with whom we have shared our lives has died.
Vulnerable and dependent: It is an often invoked cliché that grief at the death of a loved one is normal and natural. And this is assuredly true. Sometimes people who otherwise are self-reliant and courageous in the face of life’s many challenges feel a bit embarrassed when their grief causes them to feel vulnerable and dependent on the support of others. And at such times, it is perhaps important to remind them that it really cannot be otherwise. If we have shared our lives with others, our feelings and dreams, joys and vulnerabilities, our experiences and our intimacies, we have truly internalized the other. We are social beings and our interiorities overlap with other people, and those whom we have known well and have loved have become part of us. We are woven into their lives and they into ours. To not feel grief at the loss of another would indeed be strange and perhaps call into question our very humanity. Sherwin Wine, the founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, noted this when he wrote:
“When an intimate friend passes away part of our being also dies. Two people cannot share the best and worst of life and find the absence trivial. The tribute of love is the pain of separation.”
And grief, I would say, is the form that such pain often takes. Because of the universality of death, because of its inevitability and its forever-ness, and perhaps also in a certain sense because death is unimaginable (it’s often noted that death has no subject who is experiencing it), it has inspired a great deal of philosophical wisdom. So, for example, the 17th century philosopher Spinoza noted that “the free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation not on death, but on life.” What he means is that the answer to death is life, that is, to live free of inhibitions and petty and negative emotions. In other words, to the extent that we live fully, to the extent to which we live a flourishing life, we tend not to think about, fear, worry about or grieve over death. Again, the way to cope with death is to immerse ourselves in life. We may conclude, inversely, that those who fear death have an unlived life. They somehow feel cheated of life.
Inevitable and universal: In Buddhism, the answer to death is to be found in the recognition of its inevitability and universality. There is a beautiful Buddhist parable, which perhaps you have heard before. There is a young woman who loses her much cherished newborn to death, and she becomes overwhelmed and paralyzed with despair. Her friends tell her that in a remote village there is a young man who is reputed to perform miracles, and perhaps he can help her. The young woman makes the arduous journey and finds the young man meditating under a tree. He interrupts his thought and asks her what she needs from him and what she would want him to do. She tells the young man of her grief, that she cannot go on living because of the death of her child, and then she says to him forthrightly “please, I want nothing less than for you to make my dead child live again.” Quite surprisingly, the young man responds to her by saying, “Yes, I will make your child live again. But you must first do something for me.” She, of course, agrees, and asks him what it is that she must do. He says, “I want you to return to your village and bring back to me a stalk of wheat from three households whose members have not experienced the pain of the death of a loved one.” She does as he asks and, not surprisingly, the young woman cannot find a single household which had not experienced the death of one its members. She then returns to the young man and says to him “I want to thank you, Buddha, I can now bury my child.”
The moral, of course, is that there is consolation in recognizing that death is both a universal and necessary aspect of the human condition. There is solace in knowing that we are not alone in experiencing loss, and that, in the final analysis, there is no nothing we can do about it. Nature always has the last word. In other words, there is a type of peace and lightening of our burden in recognizing what we cannot control or change.
These two approaches, one coming from the West that counsels an immersion in life as an antidote to the pain of death, and the other coming from the East that counsels resignation to the inevitability and universality of death, both contain wisdom that can serve us in our time of grief. We can and should be philosophical, so to speak.
But as philosophical as I like to be, I also have to admit that these long-range perspectives may not be fully helpful to us in our moments of anguish. The pain of death often requires, I believe, more immediate attention and care, and an understanding of the grieving process. In short, ideas help, but the love, attention and care of other people help more.
In my own experience, I have found that different people grieve in different ways, and it is probably not useful to approach your friend who is in grief with the assumption that he or she is not doing it in the right way. I personally am not one who has much belief in formulaic responses to human problems. I have long given up the notion that life’s problems somehow fit together neatly like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Nor do I believe that all of life’s problems have solutions. Dealing with death is one of those difficult challenges for which there is no easy or neat resolution. Human emotions are not neat things, and grief is certainly among them. It is mutable. It ebbs and flows and causes the grieving person to need different things at different times.
Each mourns in his own way: There are times when people who have lost a loved one want to be around others to relate their story and express their grief over and over. But that same person at other times may find that telling their story becomes overly burdensome and difficult. Rather than ease their pain, to tell the story one more time is just too much. And despite the good intentions of those who want to be supportive, they want nothing better than to be left alone for a while to contemplate their sorrow in their own way. Perhaps they need time to commune with the memory of the one who has departed, or simply to talk to themselves to try to summon their strength, or just to retreat for a while from the world with which they don’t feel the strength to cope. The person who wishes to be supportive, I think, needs to be sensitive to the changing needs of the person who is in mourning.
The most important thing, I believe, is be a caring, attentive and supportive presence. When trying to be helpful to those in mourning, what I think is particularly unhelpful is to give pat answers meant to assuage the grief of the person who has just experienced the death of a loved one. Such bromides “Everything happens for a purpose, and I am sure that Mary’s death has such a purpose,” or “Your Bobby is in a better place,” even if such a reflection is in accord with the person’s theological beliefs, I don’t think is very helpful in the moment. The anguish that people feel at the time of the death of a loved one is usually so stark and overflowing that it can’t be contained or assuaged with some formulaic response which is intended to neatly sew up those feelings. Usually such remarks are more revealing of the discomfort of the other than they are helpful to the person who is in a state of anguish.
What I find can be helpful is simply being a caring presence. By our simple but attentive presence alone, we are letting the person in distress know that they are not alone. I have long believed that people derive strength from the human bond, from the sense of solidarity that comes from knowing that they are cared about and that their feelings and anguish are shared. What can also be helpful is the execution of small gestures that unburden the bereaved person when they need to direct their energies to coping with their feelings. It may take the form of bringing food, going shopping, watching the kids, or shoveling snow off their sidewalk. These, too, are forms of caring.
A second thought I come away with is that the grieving process is usually not an even one. What I mean is that people who are grieving find that the anguished sadness they feel also ebbs and flows and attacks of sadness often comes upon them totally unbidden. As time passes, the person may find herself increasingly engaging life and getting back into her usual routines only at a certain moment to be overcome by great anguish, and burst out into tears. The mind works by association, and those tears can be triggered by experiences that remind her that her husband or father or child is no longer here. It may be walking past a place where they had been together, or seeing something that belonged to the other, or having an experience that he enjoyed but is no longer here to experience with her, or see a person gesture in a way that was reminiscent of his. Or, perhaps the sadness flows for no obvious or discernible cause, the cause being beneath the surface of consciousness. As a person pushes on to regain some normalcy in life, these experiences of sorrow, which intrude on the here and now, are by no means uncommon, and are, I believe, a normal aspect of the grieving process.
A third aspect of grief is that in a certain sense it never ends. It just changes its forms and expressions. I think that we never truly get over the death of one whom we have loved. But in a sense, I think we can get used to it, so to speak. Even without any conscious effort, time changes things. Our sadness becomes attenuated with time as we move on and accrete new experiences in life. But the pain of the loss in a certain sense remains. I think of it being like a knot in a tree. As the tree grows, the bark moves around the knot to enfold it, but it does not consume it, nor does the knot disappear.
A sense of disbelief: When I say that time changes things, it is certainly true, that when one who was near to us, and with whom we have shared our lives, has died, there is often a surrealistic sense of disbelief. It is simply impossible to immediately grasp that a living being human being, who laughed and loved, who was the locus of a personality with all his or her distinguishing characteristics, and who occupied a body that took up space, has disappeared and is gone forever — this is an experience so discontinuous with our everyday experience, so alien to the routines of our daily lives, that it is impossible for the mind to fully apprehend. Having lost a wife or husband, it is not unusual for the bereaved spouse to awaken in the middle of the night to find with startled surprise that her partner is not there, or is not coming home that evening as he did routinely for so many years in the past.
As time moves on, these startling moments become less frequent and the grief one feels takes becomes more attenuated. But, as mentioned, it does not completely disappear. One way it endures is through memory. And I can use myself as an example. My mother died when I was 12 years old. There can be little doubt that losing a parent when one as a child is a life-changing experience, in the way in which losing a parent at, let’s say 40, is not, however sorrowful and unique that loss may be.
Though she died more than 52 years ago, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that I think of my mother almost every day. At first glance, one might see this as a morbid clinging to a parent from whose attachment one long ago should have freed oneself. But I don’t think that this is at all the case. Rather, my memories, which are always transient and brief, I see as ways of honoring her, and as small acts of gratitude for the gifts and the strengths that she bequeathed me, especially her love and her strong ethical sense. Recalling her often also brings me fleeting moments of joy as I imagine her goodness and what I would assume would be her pride in my accomplishments. But I see these little acts of remembrance, which always arise unbidden, as forms of grieving in a different guise.
A testament to grief: I am an inveterate book buyer and a voracious reader. One book which I felt especially impelled to read, which I did in the summer of last year, was a volume entitled A Singular Woman, by Janny Scott, a New York Times reporter. The book is a biography of Barak Obama’s mother. What drove me to read this book one day dawned on me. It was a sense of poignancy that both Obama’s mother and my own had died long before their sons had reached their highest level of accomplishment. There is sadness in that and it was that common bond with the president, who is an iconic figure, that clearly drove my interest. I certainly would not compare myself to the president of the United States or equate Ethical Culture leadership to occupying the Oval Office, but that isn’t the point. It was simply that seeking out such a book was an indirect way of acknowledging the continuing sorrow occasioned by the loss of my mother more than half a century ago—sorrow at both my loss and the realization of how much of her own life had been cut short by a premature death. The drive to read that book was testament for me of that grief, which, in some sense endures many years later. The grief comes in the form of still trying to come to terms with the significance of the loss.
Beyond the consolations of philosophy, I think that there are two dynamics that help to assuage the pains associated with loss and grief. And both of them go to the heart of our humanist values. The first is the task of the person who is suffering the loss. The second falls upon us, those who care about friends who have experienced the death of one close to them.
Not in the short range, but in the long one, the surest antidote to the death of a loved one is being able to reengage oneself in the processes of living. Life is a force that relentlessly pushes itself forward. All living things by nature seek to persist in their being, in the continuity of the process of life, just as assuredly as the stars continue to shine and objects are impelled by gravity to fall downward. In the Jewish tradition, which maintains specific timetables that govern mourning, after one year, one is commanded not to mourn. One must get on with one’s life, recognizing that life belongs to the living. One needs to continue to affirm life in the face of death. It may feel perhaps that by moving on with life one is turning one’s back on the dead and being disloyal. But I think we express our loyalty to those who are gone not by denying our own lives, but by recognizing what they have given us and how their values have merged with our own. We honor the dead, as Felix Adler said, by picking up the work they have left undone and bringing it to a fuller completion in our own lives, whether it be continuing to nurture our children or building upon their ethical commitments. How often when working on social-justice issues or working in my garden at home I remind myself that I am carrying on the work that many of our members did and were committed to.
We also honor those who have left us through memory–through recalling what gave them joy and feeling joy ourselves in those memories. Memory is critical to honoring those we respected, knew and loved. It may be a small thing, but I am personally so pleased that the placement of pavers on the walkway to our building, which started as a fund raiser, has turned into a vehicle for remembering past members and friends. Often I stand for a few moments to survey those bricks and remember the lives that they represent. By remembering the dead we bring honor to them. And by the respect we bring to the dead we respect and honor life and rededicate ourselves to it.
Healing power of community: Beyond reengagement with life, the second dynamic that aids in lessening the pain of mourning is implied in much that I have already said–and that is the healing power of community, of friendship and love. We all need each other, and at the bewildering moment when we have lost a loved one and for a time after that, the need for others becomes much more evident. Some people, fearful of death or fearful of not knowing what to say to someone who is grieving, will turn away. This is something as friends we should not allow ourselves to do. When in doubt, I think it is almost better to move toward the other and not away from her. And as noted, few people will be looking to you for the magic phrase or words of advice that would automatically make things alright for them, for at the time of grievous loss nothing will, and many people in mourning know this. What they are looking for is knowing that they are not alone in their grief, that there is someone who cares about them and can understand the anguish they are going through.
There is great strength in the human bond, in the attentive presence, in small gestures of kindness and love. This is something we can all do, and as humanists we should endeavor to do. The humanistic response to death will not make the dead live again. It will not resolve the mysteries of death. It will not even bring immediate solace to the gaping wound that sears the heart of a friend when a loved one has died. But I contend that it is the best that we mortals can do. And that by no means is a small thing.
Dr. Joseph Chuman
November 4, 2012