It's so simple to be wise.  Just think of something stupid to say, and then don't say it.     Sam Levenson (1911-1980)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Goodbye, G., part 2

(I've made some references to the original post about G.  See it here).

At the beginning of the school year I made a very difficult decision;  I decided I was not going to make regular 
shiva calls at my patients' families.

I used to go to most of them.  Jews, Muslims -- it didn't matter, as long as their parents' home was legally and safely accessible, I would go.  I needed the closure, and I knew it was important to the family.  It also gave me a lot of insight into how these families live their lives, and helped me to feel a certain closeness with the child they lost.  I have never regretted going, not once.  

This year I took on new, additional roles at work, and so work began taking a lot of more my time and energy  than every before.  In one attempt to keep things balanced, I decided I could not make shiva calls at the expense of family/personal time, and my own limited emotional energy.

But G. was different.  For one thing, he had been our patient for over two years.  When he returned with a relapse, it was painfully clear to everyone, including him, that we would lose him. I remember the first day he returned to us to begin treatment yet again.  He understood everything, and he expressed his anger, fear, and sadness in all kinds of ways -- through his jokes, his artwork, his questions, his body language.  I felt only a minimal sense of comfort seeing that G. felt comfortable coming back to be with our department staff, with people who he knew he could trust, to listen in the most genuine way, to love him and accept him.  I, like many others, felt especially close to him.

When G. died, I felt a real need for closure, and so his shiva was one of only two I attended this year.  (The other one is a much longer story, for another time).

Upon entering, what stood out were photographs of G, everywhere -- in multiple photo albums, framed on the walls, taped neatly onto the poster board covering the television -- and thousands of pictures had already been uploaded to a memorial website.  G. had older siblings who long since moved out when he came along, and so his parents basically raised him as an only child.  He was the center of their life. 

I had come with a CD of pictures and a digital copy of the essay he had written about his travel plans.   I shared some stories with G's much-older brother, who is married with children of his own.  The brother explained that the memorial website was only the first step;  after the shiva, he would create another website for family and close friends, with stories from G's life.  

On the CD I'd brought to give his family, there were a series of photos of the vehicle G. had designed.  I was struck by a need to give this family any additional concrete piece of their son's life that I could, and so I offered, on the spot, to write a brief explanation of the process G. went through to develop the vehicle and plan his classroom trip.  His brother swiveled his laptop around towards me and I sat down and began to type.  

I am not used to writing essays during a shiva visit.  It is so often a time of listening, a time of being, and not a time of doing.  Words and tears flow, and after the week is up, the family is left behind in a miserable, quiet house, trying to figure out what they have lost, willing themselves to believe the unbelievable.*

But I did not want to make a promise, only to break it and walk away from the family without having returned to them a part of G that he had temporarily entrusted to me.  When the essay was finished, I parted from them and hugged G's mother, as she reminded me that she wants to stay in touch. 

Then I left, feeling just a little lighter, having returned a shard of precious jewel back to its true owner, and knowing it is one of many that, together, will continue to reflect the light of G, but will never be whole again.

Keep the balance,

*According to Lynne Halamish, the premier expert in Israel on the subject of death and mourning, the process of accepting the loss of a loved one takes about  90 days.  The purpose of the shiva week is to give the community a defined period to learn of, and acknowledge, the family's loss, within the boundaries of the family's home environment.  I was fortunate enough to attend a recent workshop in which Lynne discussed different aspects of the mourning process, but the above description is my own paraphrasing of her ideas.


ProfK said...

The first time I attended a shiva for someone who had been my student I was hesitant about going. I think I wondered if having a complete stranger to the family that was left come would not in some way be intruding or be a painful reminder of that which was no more. Instead, the family was eager to hear whatever I could tell them about a time and place where their beloved child was that they did not have full knowledge of.

A Living Nadneyda said...

Profk -

I think most of us have a natural inclination to assume we'll be "reminding" the family of something painful, or somehow adding to their pain.

The reality is probably different: The family is in so much pain (or emptiness) already, and nothing is going to "remind" them... during the shiva, they are living it all the time. Our own stories of the person who has died can enrich the family's memories of their loved one.

Families who do not want to meet people make it very obvious to others, but I think that situation is much rarer than what we would like to believe. Our hesitation to visit those in mourning almost always stems from our own difficulties processing the loss, or accepting the idea of death. It's not an easy thing to be reminded of.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


muse said...

Shiva is what the mourner needs, and if the mourner wants an essay, you write.
My most uncomfortable shiva was to a student after his mother was murdered. He didn't know what to do with me, and his friends were embarrassed, too, and his father didn't know me, and I had never met the mother. But it's a mitzvah, and I did it.

A Living Nadneyda said...


Wow, that's a powerful one. The shiva and mourning process of a murder victim, halila, is in a category all its own, emotionally speaking. It's no wonder you felt so uncomfortable there; it sounds like hardly anyone, or anything, would have been able to comfort that family at that moment. Kol haKavod for going anyway.