Last week I observed the yahrzeit marking 39 years since the passing of my daughter Shari, of blessed memory.
Normally this annual milestone passes with limited emotion. However, for some reason this year the untimely death of a vibrant, spirited, Jewishly-connected 19-year-old got me thinking.
Perhaps it was the fact that a best friend of 62 years passed away suddenly last Sunday, just one day after we had a lovely and meaningful talk outside of the synagogue on Shabbat with no indication that the end was near. Or, perhaps it was the fact that I was marking my 83rd birthday a day after the yahrzeit itself and wondering how did I get to be this old? No doubt it was a combination of all of this that opened my mind to ask myself, “what did I learn from Shari’s untimely death?”
A question not asked by many
It’s not a question often asked by those of us who are members of this unpleasant fraternity; parents who have buried their children. And yet, I thought about this question this year, having seen so many people here burying their adult children over the last few weeks, primarily as a result of terror-related incidents.
Many people who experience the death of their child are overcome with sadness on some level for many years after the event. That is, of course, a natural passage and one about which much has been written. Indeed, the stages of emotion that people experience after the loss of a loved one are well documented. A significant number of people even start memorial foundations of one type or another to ensure that the memory of the deceased will be retained in a meaningful way.
In our case, when my daughter died in 1983, the Jewish community of Chicago – where we were living at the time – created a memorial fund. Over the last 39 years, this fund has subsidized the study of young people who wanted to spend time in Israel. Shari, of blessed memory, spent the last year of her life in Jerusalem and would have resided there had she lived, so the fund was a fitting tribute to her memory.
But I chose to look more deeply at the potential meaning that could be gleaned from the trauma of burying a child in a bid to see what could be learned from the experience. That, in turn, led me to identify three very distinct lessons that I carry with me to this day.
That we needed to be grateful for the joy that this young woman brought to me as a parent and to everyone around her in the short time she was with us. Anger at having lost her so young is normal but was overshadowed by the wonderful memories of a dynamic, loving and exciting human being who brought joy to so many… and for that I remain grateful to this day.
That the length of our lives is not guaranteed. As such, we need to do as much as we can to make every day meaningful. We should strive to bring joy to others, to greet everyone with a smile and to make everyone with whom we come in contact feel that they are the most important people in the world. We are on this earth for too short a period of time to waste that time on anger, disappointment and frustration.
And most importantly, in the course of one’s life it is guaranteed that bad things will happen and there is little we can do to prevent that. People get hurt, they get sick, they fail in business, they have emotional challenges, and some die too young.
We can do something positive about this, however, as the good Lord expects us to make good things happen. The good things are under our control – they are waiting for people to make them happen. The good things strengthen us in order to enable us to deal with the bad things that will inevitably occur.
I learned all of these things from the death of a daughter and am grateful for this lesson. How I wish she was still around to see her sister’s family, to have been able to raise a family of her own and to have made her unique contribution to the land and people of Israel, as I am sure she would have done. Nevertheless, even though she is no longer with us, the lessons I learned from introspection after her passing have contributed to making me the person that I am and for that I will be ever grateful.
Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, known for her grief studies, said: “It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth – and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up – that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.”
The writer, a resident of Jerusalem for the past 39 years, is CEO of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based international business development consultancy. He is also past chairman of the board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, former national president of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, president of Kehillat Ohel Nehama, and a member of the board of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce.