Clinging to Light in the Darkness: On Grappling with Loss and Fear of Loss

Dear Josep,

Last Friday I had the distinct pleasure of exchanging books with a friend of mine who also recently published her book.

me and shira
My arm is too short for good selfies.

Shira Chernoble is a pastoral counselor and massage therapist who has lived in Tekoa for many years. We actually know each other through my mother, because Shira treats clients in a center that is part of the El Halev complex where my mom works, but I got to know her in various settings around Tekoa, especially through her work with DoTerra (an essential oils company).

Her book, Heart 2 Heart Healing, is a collection of stories about individuals and families she has worked with in coping with grief, loss, and chronic illness.  As you can imagine, the stories are sad and painful, but they are also inspiring and uplifting, especially interspersed with Shira’s insights.

Unfortunately, Tekoa has known its share of tragedies in the time Shira has spent here. In 2001, Shira was the one to inform Sherri and Seth Mandell, after a long, harrowing, sleepless night, that the body of their son Koby had been found in a cave in the wadi nearby. You may have heard of the Mandells; they went on to establish the Koby Mandell Foundation, which offers healing retreats and activities to those who have lost family members to terror or illness. Sherri Mandell also penned two books about coping with her loss: The Blessing of a Broken Heart (winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and The Road to Resilience (released this past October).

Shira also wrote about three events that occurred during the time I have lived here: the death of Rabbi Menachem Froman, the controversial former rabbi of Tekoa; the murder of Dalya Lemkus in a terror attack in the fall of 2014; and about the sudden death of Hillel Rodich–an event that affected me very deeply, which I mentioned in the post about Jewish mourning customs.

The thing that struck me about the way Shira wrote about these events was her perspective as someone who is not afraid to confront this terrifying and painful subject. I remember in my work with OneFamily (another organization that helps terror victims), seeing what happened to families that were affected by terror, and the isolation they experienced because their friends just didn’t know how to respond, how to stand in the face of something so difficult and painful and be helpful in any way.

But Shira sees grief and loss as part of what gives life its beauty. That we do have this window of opportunity, called life, to touch each other’s lives, to give each other love, to experience the magnificence of God’s world–and the transience makes it that much more potent. It helps to believe as she does (and I do) that death is not an ending, but a transition, and that our loved ones live on and speak to us in various ways.

I want to quote one passage, from the story of Hillel’s family:

As this was occurring, Seth Mandell (father of Koby, described in the previous story); Eliyana, Koby’s sister; and a journalist “happened to be” walking in the wadi as well. They heard Hillel’s children screaming and rushed to the spring. They called an ambulance, and Eliyana took the children back to the Mandell home. Sherri Mandell, for whom it had been so significant that her friends and neighbors had lovingly fed her during her period of mourning, now fed these children, because they said they were hungry. When the children arrived at the Mandells, I also “happened to be” there when Hillel died, and that I, a trained grief counselor “happened to be” at the Mandell’s when a shocked Hadass came to pick up her children was not insignificant. I believe it was what Dr. Kubler-Ross called a “divine coincidence.” I believe that the presence of Seth and Eliyana, and then Sherri, and then me was Gd’s unfathomable way of embracing Hadass and the children immediately in the face of Hillel’s death.

I paused here, during my first reading, wiping away the tears, and stared at that last sentence. “Gd’s unfathomable way of embracing Hadass and the children immediately in the face of Hillel’s death.”

The tantruming toddler in me wanted to throw the book across the room and scream. God had just inflicted an unimaginable pain on this family. The enormity of it still floors me. I remember getting the notice on my phone, shortly before Shabbat, and literally sinking to the floor in shock. This scenario is one of my worst nightmares. How can we speak of God compassionately embracing, bestowing kindness, when He had just cruelly ripped these children from their father and this woman from her husband?

…And I guess we’re back to the allegory of the moon.

I wrote a letter months ago–in fact, it ended up the last chapter of my book, and that was no accident–about the paradox of believing in God’s ultimate goodness while being angry with Him for difficult things He’s put you through. A brief recap in case you couldn’t be bothered to click the link and reread it: The Talmud asks why the Torah requires a sin-offering as part of the Temple service for Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the new month). For whose sin is it meant to atone, the Sages ask? The Talmud answers that it is God’s “sin.” God is asking our forgiveness for hiding the moon from us. And as I elaborated in that letter, the darkness of the moon symbolizes the illusion of evil in this world; that beneath everything, all is God, and all is Good, and evil, like the phases of the moon, is a mere trick of the light. God asks our forgiveness because for reasons we don’t entirely understand, He cannot bestow this light on us without illusions and filters–not yet. He must hide it sometimes. And He knows it is painful, and He asks us to forgive Him for inflicting this pain.

But when I thought back on that letter, I realized something else about that allegory. When we look at the moon, don’t only see its dark side. We see its light side, too–usually at the same time. Sometimes the moon is full and we see only light. Sometimes the moon is new, and we don’t see it at all. But for most of the month, there is an ongoing, dynamic interplay between light and darkness. Light and darkness are completely opposite, completely mutually exclusive, and yet they have existed side by side in the night sky since the creation of the world.

Can we be in the midst of darkness and cling to the tiny sliver of light, having faith that it represents the Truth?

moon

I feel that there is a keyword missing here, one that isn’t faith.

The word is trust.

Can we trust God?

Can we trust Him, when we know that at a moment’s notice, He may very well take away everything we hold dear? Can we trust Him, that even if He prescribes death itself, or profound emotional or physical suffering, as part of our fate–this, too, is good? It seems so easy, so comforting, to believe in a God who will always protect you from pain and suffering. But God invented pain and suffering. And He allows it to inflict us no matter how faithful we are.

Thoughtful people of faith must grapple with this difficult truth. And they have–for centuries.

I remember struggling with it when crouching in the “safe corner” of our house during a rocket barrage a couple years ago, trying to figure out what to say to calm my frightened children. I knew it might be comforting to tell them that Hashem would protect us. But I also knew that I couldn’t promise them that. Why would Hashem protect us, and not Koby Mandell? Why would Hashem protect us, and not Dalya Lemkus, or the Fogel family, or Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali?

We don’t know. And in that corner, with the sirens wailing, I had to reaffirm an idea  that is far too complex to communicate to small children. The idea that if of all places those haphazard missiles could have landed, if one lands right here in our living room, there is no way to call that an accident of fate. It must be part of God’s plan. I had to trust Him that whatever He decides about where that missile would land, it would be for the ultimate good. And that He would provide enough light in the darkness for me to find my way–whatever that might be.

This is not easy. Not easy at all.

Anyway. I’m sorry to say that Shira’s book is only available through her. I might try and convince her to let me help her publish it through CreateSpace and/or make an eBook version so a wider audience will have access to it. I really think it’s an important and valuable read for anyone who has ever struggled with grief… which is, pretty much, every single human being on this planet.

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Much love,

Daniella

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