Death’s Ripples – Yizkor 5778

October 4, 2017

Death causes ripples – emotional ripples that extend far beyond the immediate devastation of the loss of a spouse, a parent, a child, a sibling or a friend.

We feel death’s impact, death’s ripples, for years.

Judaism offers us rituals which are sensitive to the immediate and long term ripples.  At death, there is a structure we can rely on.  The funeral is soon after death.  Shiva gives us things to focus on.  Shloshim, the 30 days after burial, helps mark time.  The 11 months of saying Kaddish moves us forward.

These rituals are profoundly helpful and supportive.

But today, I am thinking about the long term emotional ripples which extend far beyond 7 days, 30 days or even a year.  This year I have been considering the ripples from death that affect us 5 years, 10 years, 25 years later.

We never stop feeling the impact of someone’s death.

We always remember the phone call with the news. We can feel the shock which made our heart stop for a moment.  We recall saying goodbye or not having the chance to say goodbye.

The details of where I was standing, the day of the week and the time of day when I received the call about my dad are seared into me.

That was the night time stopped for a moment.  For me, the earth stopped spinning for a second.  It was the night my brain needed an extra beat to process what my ears had just heard.

It is seven years later and my heart still feels the ripples of my father’s death.  To this day, if a tele-marketer happens to call at the same time of day, part of me jumps.

But I can still feel the currents of his love expressed long ago as well as feel his absence.

We don’t talk about this much – the long term ripples.

They are real though.

It is inevitable that distance and time grows between us and the moment of their death.  Eventually, we get a new job.  We move cities.  We end relationships and enter new ones.  We have accomplishments and failures our loved one never saw.  That is what happens over time.

Part of the complexities of death is that we get older but they do not.

The experience of loss is part of what makes us – us.  Accepting death’s ripples shapes us.

At morning or evening minyanim, I have the chance to be with people observing a Yartzeit.  I like to ask about the person:  What was their name?  How long ago did they pass?  Sometimes I have a chance to ask the person at minyan more.  I cherish hearing the quick vignettes about people.

I recently read a haiku titled “Distressed Haiku” by Donald Hall[1].  It reads:

You think that their
 dying is the worst
 thing that could happen.

 Then they stay dead.

They stay dead.

Even when you move into a new house they never saw, they stay dead.  They stay dead even though you are attending a college they never weighed in on or a new grandchild has arrived or a new dilemma arose requiring their insight.  They stay dead even though you have new accomplishments they will never know about.

A few months ago, I had an issue I was thinking through.  It was something important to me at the time but honestly at this point I cannot remember what it was.  What happened later, overtook whatever I was concerned about.

Let me explain.

I carved out a few blocks of time on my schedule to allow myself space to think through the issue.  I even treated myself to an afternoon hike on Roosevelt Island.

Along the dirt trails of Roosevelt Island and shaded by the lush trees, all the sudden I had some clarity on the issue.  I wanted to run it by my best advisor – my dad.

My dad was always my advisor.  From proper technique at playing pinball machines to strategic thinking around his or my career fields, I miss his counsel.  For just a moment, I instinctively was going to call him to run the idea by him.

And then I felt the ripple.

My heart sank.  I could not believe I had made this mistake.  My dad has been dead for seven years.  In that instant though, my heart turned to him and then my head caught up.

For the next few days, I felt in a funk.

As I was talking to a friend about this, he said he knew what had happened.  He said, “You forgot your Dad was dead.”

I sat back in my chair.  I forgot he was dead?  I had to let that sink in.

How could I forget?  I was at the funeral.  I sat shiva.  I have observed yizkor for him.  But my friend was exactly right.  For a moment, I had forgotten.  The ripples caught up with me though.

I felt his loss anew but in a different way than when the world stopped from that phone call years ago.

You think that their
 dying is the worst
 thing that could happen.

 Then they stay dead.

Let me tell you another story.

I met with a mother in my office who told me about her son Jon[2].  He had been energetic and full of life.  He was funny and loved.  Jon was 26 years old when he died in a motorcycle accident. We were meeting that day because it was the 27th yartzeit of Jon’s death.  His mother mourned each year on his birthday and observed yartzeits.  She continued to feel the ripples of Jon’s death.  She told me something was very different this year though.

There was a tipping point of sorts.  Jon was 26 years old when he died.  This was his 27th yartzeit.  Her son had now been dead longer than he was alive.

Many things had changed over those years.  She had a new husband who never met Jon but honored him through her stories.  She remained in contact with a few of Jon’s friends who got married themselves.  Some had children of their own.  Some were happily married and others were happily divorced.  She told me that at some point long ago, these stopped being Jon’s friends and became her own relationships.  She become like the ‘cool aunt’ to them.  And they were dear to her as well.  Initially, they were a tie to Jon but after a few years, the relationships were genuine.

Even after the many years which had passed, there was an occasional tinge of sadness though.  She would be talking with these younger friends about a joy or difficulty and she would realize Jon would have had similar joys and problems had he lived.

The ripples of death are long.  They can be sad, comforting and joyful.

I appreciate Judaism’s sensitivities to these ripples.

The practice of observing yartzeits is precisely designed to honor someone who died years earlier.  The simple practices of lighting a 24 hours candle at home and reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish at shul is meant to help us honor our loved one long after their death.  Judaism does not want us to relive the intensity of the funeral over and over again but it does allow us to honor the ripples of loss across time.

For some reason, we rarely give voice to this subtle gift Judaism gives to us.  Each year we gather in this sacred space to honor these ripples.

Yizkor is a simple 15 minute service filled mostly with quiet.  It is designed for our personal prayers bookended by some readings.  The power of Yizkor does not come from the bimah though.  The power of Yizkor is from our own personal prayers, memories and allowing the ripples to touch us.  Yizkor concludes with the recitation of the El Maleh Rachamim prayer, the Memorial Prayer, and the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Judaism does not want us to suppress our emotions no matter how long after the official mourning rituals have ended.  Our Tradition is sensitive to human nature and the reverberations of grief.  Our Faith has created the space for each of us to grapple with the ripples which began 1 year ago, 10 years ago, or 30 years ago. We honor the immediate and the long term.

So, I want to ask each of us to take a moment and focus on the people who caused these important ripples in our lives.  Who are you saying kaddish for today?

Is it a parent or a sibling?  Are these the ripples from a child or a friend?  A spouse or someone else?  Bring them into focus.

Let them touch your heart once again.  In the silence of the Yizkor service, you will be able to reach back to them.

With them in mind, and honoring the ripples of death which continue to surprise us, move us and inspire us, we will turn to page 290 in just a moment to begin the Yizkor service.



[1] Ron Marasco and Brian Shuff, About Grief p6

[2] Not his real name or age.