Monday, January 26, 2009

Uncomfortably numb

The gemara talks about the horrible smell associated with tanning leather, but experienced tanners don’t really notice it.

Career politicians probably become dull, at some point, to the accoutrements of power.

And I find that I am becoming numb to death these days.

We’ve had nine deaths in the past month – four members and five relatives of members. This number of deaths is high for our community, for such a short period of time. We’re not talking about a מכת דבר (supernatural plague) here, Gd-forbid - all of them were people who were senior, and some of them had been ill for an extended period of time - but it’s really an abnormally high tally. At times, thank Gd, we’ve gone a year or more with one passing, maybe two. But now we’re in a blizzard of bereavement.

I’ve grown suspicious of my cell phone; every time it rings I’m afraid to pick it up and hear more bad news.

And I can feel myself becoming desensitized. I can detect in myself more of a sense that death is normal, just the end of life.

I’ve come to some form of acceptance, thanks to the constant flow of eulogies and nichum and shiva houses. It’s a protective defense mechanism, because feeling horrified anew every other day is an intense harrowing of the soul.

I’ve seen this happen with hospital physicians, particularly those who deal in geriatrics or oncology; they become so familiar with death that they can discuss terminal diagnoses and end-of-life options, even with patients and their families, without any sign that the subject causes them pain.

But this is a dangerous phenomenon for a rabbi (and for a doctor as well!).

For the mourner who has suffered the loss, this isn’t the ninth grief in thirty days; it’s the first, the only. Even for those who have suffered the death of relatives and friends before, each one is unique. They endure all of the feelings, the rage and denial, the realization of bereavement, and they need the comfort of having someone listen to their pain uniquely and independently, without that experience being colored by other deaths and circumstances.

Every eulogy must be unique, every pain must be treated. With complete, genuine sincerity, the rabbi must ask all of the questions, and offer all of the counsel and commisseration, that the mourner needs to hear. He must state, “ברוך דיין האמת, Blessed be the Judge of Truth,” not as an objective ritual declaration, but with all of the pain of a mourner being forced to confront the conflict between the promise of his religion and the pain of his experience.

This is what any rabbi must do; the empath cannot afford to stand at a distance.

So you block out all of the previous experiences and see each one as new, the person in front of you not as one more in a line of mourners but as a suffering human being. You open up your heart to feel everything that they are feeling, you put yourself in their place and see what they see. It tears at you, as you know it will – but this is what you have to do, this is the person you need to be, for their sake.

And you hope that the next time the phone rings, it will be for a שמחה, a happy occasion.


  1. I have a very close friend who is a pediatrician at a children's hospital.

    When children come to see him it is generally because he is the final gatekeeper.

    I have listened to many of his stories and wondered how he can see so many of them die and yet not fall apart.

  2. Yes, that's a tough one. One of my congregants is head of Pediatrics at our local hospital, and I see him deal with exactly that.

  3. So sorry for you and your kehillah. Hang in there.

  4. Unfortunately, the funeral director has knocked on our door during Shabbos & Yom Tov meals. It's quite a party ender.

    Last Shabbos, we got a knock at the door during zemiros, and the Beis Din look at each other, head for the door and said "Why's (insert funeral director's name) here?" We weren't aware of anyone seriously ill.

    The Rebbetzin forgot to tell us that a couple was coming for dessert.

  5. The Talmid-
    Thanks for commenting. My local funeral directors know that they can't reach me on Shabbos... which means that when my phone rings right after Shabbos, I know it's trouble.