When in Doubt, Go to the Funeralby Sharon Rosen Leib September 23, 2017
Attending a funeral is hard work because it demands we confront the death of someone who mattered in our lives. At funerals, we share raw emotions and cry in public, thus exposing our vulnerabilities. When the deceased’s loved ones reveal painful personal truths, ramble or break down during their eulogies, we experience social discomfort. On the plus side, listening to anecdotes that help us laugh through our tears temporarily lightens the grief load. Experiencing this range of emotions together bonds us into a community of mourners.
At Jewish funerals, graveside burial rituals jolt us into facing our own mortality. When we watch the deceased’s casket lowered into the chasm, we feel the end of physical presence. When we pick up the shovel to perform the mitzvah of helping bury the dead, we feel the earth’s weight upon us. When we hear the shoveled earth rain down on the casket, we feel the ancient refrain reverberate – from dust to dust. Considering these painfully unpleasant sensory experiences, why attend the funeral of an old friend we haven’t seen in years?
I faced this dilemma when I learned that a dear friend from college days died last month. Mike was a mensch – a good listener, compassionate, honest, hardworking, self-effacing, smart and well liked. He was definitely one of the sweetest guys I knew at Berkeley.
Diagnosed with cancer as a19-year-old sophomore, Mike never lamented, “Why me?” Yet being a sensitive, vulnerable, English major kind of guy, he shared his worries about the treatments he faced with people close to him. Fortunately, his chemo/radiation regimen worked. He married his college sweetheart Shelley (one of my wonderful sorority sisters) and they had two bright, handsome, healthy sons. As their boys grew, Mike’s cancer recurred multiple times – weaving its toxic way into the fabric of their lives. He managed to vanquish it time and again until at 55, his body gave out.
Although I hadn’t seen Mike or Shelley for many years, I wanted to honor his memory and support Shelley. But I had multiple worries/insecurities regarding the funeral:
1) Would Shelley still recognize me?
2) Would I feel awkward and voyeuristic being there?
3) Could I handle schlepping up to Los Angeles the Friday of Labor Day weekend and coping with the traffic, heat and crowds?
My thoughtful, emotionally intelligent husband said, “You should go and grieve with your old friends. Shelley will appreciate you being there. Just take the train.” So I tamped down my neuroses and went.
The chapel at Eden Memorial Park in the San Fernando Valley overflowed with mourners as the temperature soared to over 100 degrees. We all schvitzed, cried and blew through boxes of Kleenex during the eulogies that movingly captured Mike’s beautiful essence.
Shelley held the post-funeral reception at the family home. As she greeted the guests crowding in, she saw me and gasped. “I can’t believe you came all the way from San Diego after so many years! ” Her eyes lit up and we hugged each other tight. Knowing that my presence brought her cheer made my doubts about attending embarrassingly self-indulgent. Thank G-d I’d mustered the courage to get over myself and make it there.
Showing up for a funeral is one of life’s essential mitzvahs. It demonstrates love and support. It proves the dead person’s life mattered and touched others. It helps bring closure. It enables us to bear witness to the totality of a life. Ultimately, it’s always the right thing to do. So when in doubt, please go. A