The loss of a whole world

In a collection of letters by Henri Nouwen, I came upon this one that he wrote following the death of his mother:

OCTOBER 25, 1978

Dear Jim,

A few days ago I returned from Holland, where I buried my mother. Only five weeks ago she was with me in New Haven. She returned four days afterwards with my Father after the internist had discovered a tumor which caused the jaundice. Two weeks later she was operated on, a week after that she died. I am still in a daze. Everything seems different to me and I am slowly rediscovering the world which she loved so much. She has been so much part of my life that I have to do some real relearning. I am spending a still week at a retreat center trying to let my mother’s death reform me and lead me to new fields. It is all very intimate and very deep, very sad and very joyful, very beautiful and very painful. I am trying to write a little bit about these last few weeks, but I am still too close to all that has happened to do it well and with the necessary peace of mind. But I keep trying. It seems at this moment my way of letting her spirit come to me. I am still somewhere between Easter and Pentecost not knowing what really has happened. Keep me in your prayers and pray for her. Nobody has ever been as close to me as she was and never did I lose anyone whom I loved so deeply. Somewhere life needs to be rediscovered. But I am sure that her death will mean many new births for me.

Best wishes,
Love,
Henri

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What You Are Doing Is Important

What a remarkable photo it is taken by Ariel Schalit for the Associated Press. The caption in this Globe and Mail story says, “Mourners gather around the body of Shraga Gestetner, a Canadian singer who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron, in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021.”

Shraga Gestetner was among those accidentally trampled and killed in the midst of a big celebration in Israel. Many commentators are reflecting on the heightened fervour and enthusiasm among those who were finally able to gather for the annual event, partly in celebration of the luminousness of Judaism’s mystical teachings.

The Montreal-born victim had been in Israel without any of his family members and he was buried immediately in accordance with Jewish law.

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Giving Death Its Due

On of my favourite sections of the book After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition by Hillel Halkin is about the proper measure of grief in our lives and our communities.

Hilkin writes:

“The basic approach of the rabbis in Semahot [a rabbinic text on death and mourning] is to allow sufficient space for grief while channeling it into formulaic expressions and surrounding it with numerous prescriptions that make sure its desirable limits are not exceeded. Death is a blow that must not be faced alone; it requires the support of others; the emotions it arouses must be acknowledged and given voice to; yet they are best expressed in time-tested ways that never carry mourners past the point from which they can find their way back to normal functioning within a reasonable amount of time. Mourning is not just a private affair. It is the concern of the community, which is thrown off balance if one of its members fails to recover from a death quickly enough. Life has its rights, too. If a funeral and a wedding procession meets in the streets of the town, Semahot rules, the mourners must turn aside from the path of the bride, since ‘respect for the living precedes respect for the dead.’ Should you have to choose between paying a condolence call and attending a celebration for the birth of someone’s child, choose the celebration.”

Next, Halkin recounts this story from the same source about Rabbi Akiva when his son became seriously sick:

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The Merit of Hidden Ritual

In the book, Not Cancelled: Canadian Kindness in the Face of COVID-19, there’s a chapter containing a short personal reflection entitled, “Mourning is Not Cancelled.” One of 49 stories of creativity and resilience, this one begins, “Today I attended a funeral. And I was heartbroken I wasn’t there.”

Contributor Catherine Kenwell recounts watching the livestreamed funeral of her best friend’s mother.

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For the Sake of the Mourners

Recently, I visited the Holy Cross Cemetery with Mark Neugebauer. As a deacon for the Archdiocese of Toronto, he has become involved in the service of burying the dead.

While he never expected this to become a key part of his ministry, he was asked one day by a priest to do a committal and he agreed. From there he started doing them occasionally which led him to realize that he really enjoyed it. He asked if he could assist more and was told that a deacon had just died and, in fact, they needed him. Now, he currently does an average of 3 or 4 interments every Monday.

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