National Tragedy, Personal Grief

In the immediate hours after the tragedy in Newton, Conn., I vacillated between watching TV and reading reports online to closing the TV, the computer and walking away. Saturday morning I opened the paper and upon reading the headlines, I quickly shut it, as absorbing the details felt so voyeuristic. I didn't understand these feelings, as they were so different from my experiences after 9/11 and other tragedies and natural disasters whose stories and reporting relentlessly drew me in.

It wasn't until Sunday evening when I realized the memorial service was on that I stayed put without hesitation. Over the next 60 minutes, as each clergy person rose to offer a prayer in his/her tradition and the Governor of Connecticut and President Obama each offered words of comfort, I wept, almost without ceasing.

When the service was over and I was sitting alone, I realized in a powerful yet obvious way, the importance of ritual. It seems strange that as a rabbi, this fact would be new to me, yet I had been in my own state of aninut, the Hebrew word for that place of limbo between death and burial that Jewish tradition teaches should be as short as possible. It was overwhelmingly clear why our custom is to have a service and burial as soon as possible so as not prolong the agony between loss and mourning. Once the rituals begin, once we speak words of memory and comfort, participate in burying our loved one -- considered an act of hesed shel emet (abounding kindness) -- and express our grief, we can get to our mourning.

I didn't know how important that ritual was to me. I have officiated at many funerals, supporting families in their grief; I have experienced loss, I have been to untimely funerals and lived through national and international tragedies. Yet, it took this unspeakable massacre to really teach me.

All of the Jewish rituals of death and mourning are meant to comfort and support the mourners while honoring the deceased. Funeral and burial practices are meant to be simple, beautiful, and executed with sensitivity and care. We ritualize and bury our dead quickly, we wash and prepare the body, we place the met (the deceased) in a plain pine box to emphasize the natural reality that is death. When we receive visits of consolation during shiva, the traditional seven-day period of intense grieving after burial, our home becomes a parallel universe. People enter from the outside world that has continued as usual, and when they leave, they mostly leave the grieving rituals as well. It is no wonder that when shiva concludes, the practice is to walk around the block so as to gently re-enter the world.

It has often struck me when our nation experiences the kind of horror that we did on December 14th that the boundary between the house of mourning and the "outside world" blurs. There is little to no separation between them, and as a result, we sometimes need a ritual like a televised memorial service to remind us why we feel so out of sorts. My community, like many others, takes care to support one another through our losses, and people often reflect that they felt most connected to our congregation when people "they didn't even know" came to offer condolences, came to the shiva minyan (prayer service) at their home, helped with a meal, or simply sent a card. Obviously, not knowing any of the families in Newtown did not stem the tide of my tears, nor lessen my deep need to mourn in some way alongside them. We are all connected in the human family, and I am glad my faith offers me a framework to contend with loss -- especially someone else's.