Her breathing was labored, the hospital room had an anticipatory scent. A steady stream of visitors filed in to see my grandmother, to say their goodbyes or have at least a little peace with a woman who had been a formidable presence in many lives. My mother couldn’t bring herself to come to the hospital, preferring instead to busy herself at home looking after children and grandchildren. It wasn’t because she was particularly sad – it wasn’t even her mother – but she couldn’t bring herself to finalize a relationship that had seen its fair share of heartache. As my grandmother took her final breaths in front of five children and four grandchildren, my mother remained at home. Arriving with my father and a brother at home after midnight, I expected some emotional overture to a man who had just lost his mother. My mother walked across the room to the door, said “boruch dayan emes” and walked slowly up the stairs to bed.
What is our procedure to handle loss outside the context of Orthodox Judaism? When we’re faced with such an enormous void in our lives, how is it possible to process it when you can’t wrap it around the central idea of a deity that had the whole thing planned out? How can we say something is for the good when it clearly is not?
I was sitting at home when the phone abruptly rang. My first thought was to pick up before it woke the baby, and sighed in mild annoyance when I found my mother at the end of the line. She knew the baby’s schedule, and in my self-righteous first-time mother state, I let her know that she needed to be more respectful of our routine. “S was killed today.” I sat down, rubbing my eyes and feeling a knot immediately forming in my throat. Killed. Car accident. Gone in a flash. My loving cousin, barely out of his teenage years, a father, a husband, a son. Gone. So final. The words wouldn’t come. I couldn’t bless something that took my cousin away in his twenties. There was no boruch dayan emes, no acknowledging any good in this. I wasn’t prepared, I hadn’t said goodbye or said how his kindness had stuck to my heart when I had felt marginalized and bitter. While we don’t sit shiva for cousins, I mourned significantly more than I would a couple of years later for my grandmother.
Which brings me to wonder whether a slow death or a quick one is more favorable or even desirable. If you had a preference, would you choose an unknowing and swift death over the chance to make things right by your loved ones?
After a nearly decade long battle with cancer, a relative of mine passed away this morning. When I said boruch dayan emes today, I was thinking that my blessing wasn’t for Hashem but for the mercy my relative had after years of suffering. I was able to see the good, though wrapped tightly and completely by an ugly bag of sadness and loss.
While I wasn’t close to my recently deceased relative, I wonder if their death will bring about the same change from my frum life – in me or for me. When I hugged my daughter a little harder tonight, it wasn’t to feel comforted by their overflowing joy and constant appreciation of life. I wanted to do what I imagine my parents would want to do now if there weren’t a giant block of OTD me in the way. To comfort themselves, to reassure themselves that life goes on through the next generation, that living is the best affirmation of moving on and moving forward.
Boruch dayan emes. It seems so out of place to say outside of my yiddishkeit, but so important to acknowledge the brevity and frailty of life. A reminder to myself to make sure when that’s said for me it’s done with a reflective smile on the person’s face, rather than a tear stained stoicism or casual dismissal.
Peace, love and strength to the people with broken hearts tonight.