Shemini: Being fully present for mourners
In this week’s Torah portion, Aaron stands before his brother Moses in despair. Aaron’s two young sons, Nadav and Abihu, flesh of his flesh, have been killed in a sudden sweeping fire that consumes them both. Moses, no doubt in shock himself, responds with a cryptic comment about God’s will. Aaron’s reaction resounds with his agony and heartbreak: “vayidom Aharon,”, “and Aaron was silent.”
The entire scene is wrapped in complexity — how do we comprehend the events leading to the deaths of these young men? What did Moses intend by his words to his brother? And, perhaps most poignantly, what did Aaron’s silence convey about his needs and his grief?
Like Moses, we may struggle to find the right words to say at the moment of death. Our impulse may be to utter clichés that make us feel more comfortable. Or maybe we stay away from mourners, telling ourselves that we are giving them their privacy. These strategies are our way of protecting ourselves from sorrow and misfortune. We may especially respond in these ways when the loss is a tragic one — the deceased is a child or the circumstances surrounding death are violent or unforeseen.
It takes great courage to be fully present for another person’s anguish. For this reason our sages in the Mishna teach that comforting mourners is a duty whose worth cannot be measured. When someone we care about suffers a loss, it is our obligation to provide solace because grief can be so terribly isolating. Therefore, Judaism commands us to be present for mourners, to let them know that they are not alone in an unfeeling universe.
Perhaps the meaning of Aaron’s silence is to teach us that we need to make space for mourners to grieve in their own way. I once knew a woman named Alissa whose beautiful daughter Amanda died at 4 ½ of complications from Influenza B, a strain of the flu that is rarely fatal. As Alissa transitioned back to her job and her life, she wrote a letter to her co-workers and friends. Here is an excerpt:
“I appreciate that many of you have asked about our well-being — and that it’s sometimes hard for people to know what to say in such circumstances. Please know that a smile can make my day. Please know that by mentioning Amanda’s name, you keep her memory alive. And know that your caring thoughts and hugs may make me cry, but that tears are healing for me. And, please, don’t be afraid to cry in front of me. Some days are easier than others; so please bear with me on the tough ones.” Alissa goes on to ask comforters not to try to ascribe meaning to Amanda’s death nor suggest the best ways for her and her family to move on.
“Please just say you’re sorry. Please just say you remember her if you do. Please just let me talk if I want to. Please just let me cry if I must.”
While every mourner grieves in his or her own way, mourning itself is a universal experience. Alissa’s words guide us in comforting all mourners, no matter who they may grieve for. When we mention a name or an event from the past we do not add to mourners’ sadness; instead, we let them know their loved one will always be remembered. When we cry before mourners, we do not deepen their despair; instead we let them know that they are not alone in their sorrow. When we approach the mourner with openness and without judgment, we let them know that we support their choices, and that we will accompany them however they choose to walk the path of grief.
Most importantly, when we move on with mourners, sharing with them moments of pleasure and delight, we let them know that they can grieve and still experience the fullness of life’s emotions.
“And Aaron was silent.” Let us rest in the silence of mourners, or in their tears, or in any reaction they may have to the death of a loved one. If we are fully present for mourners, then slowly, hearts will heal, and slowly hearts will once again rejoice, although perhaps never in quite the same way as before.