Look at the wall. That's what you do when you think you need to cry. Crying is unprofessional. How can you help these families if you are out here crying too?
Fists clenched, standing like a statue, wanting her mother's consolation, Booker learned to bury her own grief, rather than express it.
Nine years later, when Booker is relieved from her duties at the funeral home, she allows herself to cry, writing:
It felt like such an enormous relief to finally let it all out....I didn't want to be strong or polite anymore....Every time I had held my tears over the years, I had become a little less human, a little less compassionate....Each time we buried someone, a small piece of me was gnawed away, until eventually I felt almost nothing. I lived with people's stories. I was left with their secrets...Death has been many things to me, but it’s never been fair. I don’t regret saving my tears all those years. It was the one thing I walked away with from Wylie Funeral Home. Not a church fan, not a pen, not a paycheck. I walked away with a bank full of tears,
But our world does not often allow us to cry or feel safe when we do. Two or three days of bereavement leave is the norm and then we are expected to move on. We speak in the usual platitudes, offering our deepest condolences and hoping that their loved one's memory will be for a blessing. And when we are questioned, "How are you?" most of us don't want to give language to our grief, for fear that the person who asks may respond insensitively or indifferently. So our faces glass over and empty words come out. "I'm fine." And after the first month or so, when real grief strikes, when reality sets in, when we are really "not fine," the phone calls stop, the outreach stops, and nobody seems to care anymore.
All of us pass through the valley of the shadow. We struggle with illness, losing loved ones, and confront the cruel reality that life comes to an end. Sometimes, a loved one's death after a period of prolonged suffering is a blessed relief, but more often than not, death leaves us with a conflux of raw and real emotions. Thinking that our loved one is dead and buried and we are "over it," and prepared to celebrate rather than grieve isn't the case. Often, such reactions often serve to merely prolong the reality of the pain, rather than address the sadness head-on. Mike Lew writes:
The mistaken idea is that if the person would only stop expressing the pain, [they] would stop feeling it—and it would go away. Well, it just doesn't happen that way. Crying is not grief; it is a way to get over the grief...But our culture tells us otherwise. We are uncomfortable with our emotions, and that discomfort is reflected in our behavior."
There is an example from the tenth century text Seder Eliyahu Rabbahthat speaks to the power of tears. The text reads, "In any generation that you find righteous, faithful and worthy people grieving in exile, the Holy One clasps both hands together, then God clasps them over God's heart, then God folds God's arms as God weeps secretly for the righteous." God is not presented as apathetic to the human condition but just the opposite. God cries. Not even God is "fine" all the time. What would happen if we said, "I'm feeling sad?" "I'm feeling heartbroken." "I miss my mom, dad, spouse, child, grandparent, friend." Own your feelings. Most people will not think less of you. They will think more of you. Let yourself cry. It is natural and healthy to do so.
Jewish tradition has always been wise to this truth. A hesped, a eulogy, serves two purposes, to account the praiseworthy deeds of the deceased, and to allow the wailing to begin, reminding people of the loss that they have suffered, evoking feelings of sadness. Shiva, intended to last a week, should be an occasion where we stop, and where those who come to express their condolences offer words only when they are addressed first. Shiva is not a party. We don't talk about sports, politics or the weather. We listen to the mourner's stories. We let them cry and we let holy grief begin to do its work. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once said, "The halakhah did not like to see the dead interred in silent indifference. It wanted to hear the shriek of despair and to see the hot tear washing away human cruelty and toughness."
Jewish tradition doesn't expect that we ever achieve closure with our grief. Losses become integrated into the fabric of our lives. We gather on Yizkor on Yom Kippur and also on three other festivals throughout the year to remember our loved ones. Reciting Kaddish at Yahrzeit, the anniversary of a loved one's death, helps us to reconnect with our memories. We never fully get over our losses. Sometimes grief comes storming back. Sometimes we just need to cry. And that's okay. We don't need anyone's permission to do so.
Are we brave enough to show our tears and allow ourselves a good cry? Novelist Glenn Meade writes, "Love has a price. There never can be--never will be and never has been--a single love that comes without agony." Maybe Yizkor is the time to let our feelings go, a moment where we allow ourselves to cry and to feel safe in doing so, to let that salty wetness stream down our cheeks, for our losses, for our sadness, for our aching, lonely hearts, for ourselves.
Crying demonstrates that other people mean something to us. Crying displays the delicate, profound, fragile truth of our humanity. Crying is human. Crying is real. And sometimes, our tears are the only words we have.
Booker, Kindle Location 981.
Booker, Kindle Locations 1011-1013.
Booker, Kindle Locations 2992-2997.
Booker, Kindle Locations 3098-3104.
Mike Lew, Victims No Longer, Kindle Locations 5385-5388.
Seder Eliyahu Rabah and Seder Eliyahu Zuta (Tanna de bei eliyahu) ed. Meir Friedmann (1831-1908), Vienna, 1902, 1904: Tanna de-Bei Eliyyahu: The Lore of the School of Elijah, trans. william G. Braude and Israel J. Kapstein, Philadelphia 1980.
Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom, Page 263.
Glenn Meade, Unquiet Ghosts: A Novel, Kindle Locations 168-172.