My father’s yahrzeit is approaching. He passed away unexpectedly in 2003, just a month shy of his 73rd birthday and less than one year BFE (Before the Facebook Era). The social media site hatched in February 2004. Nearly five years later, I reluctantly created a profile. Since then, I haven’t always marked the anniversary of his death. When I’m fully engaged in life, I don’t feel the need to acknowledge his passing either publicly or privately. Yet, in recent years when friends have posted that a parent or loved one has entered hospice or died, or have shared information about funeral services, I’ve envied their ability to reach out and, I imagine, receive immediate support at such a difficult, if not unbearable, time.
Is that envy justified? Would I have used social media for such a purpose? Could it have ameliorated the turbulence of grief?
Our culture has only recently begun to discuss death and the end of life more openly. Still, despite the long standing taboo, society offered approval for “good” deaths, often in the form of obituaries. Reading them reinforced the image of a person peacefully passing away at home, surrounded by friends, family and spouse, after a long, accomplished or adventurous life and/or following a valiant battle against a disease. A member of the clergy, well acquainted with the deceased and their survivors, officiated at the funeral. Implicit in “good” death narratives is that the departed, before dying, neatly wrapped up their business on earth. They conveyed their wishes about burial (or cremation), chose a cemetery or purchased a plot, if preceding generations hadn’t already staked out territory in, and for, eternity.
My father’s death did not resemble a Norman Rockwell tableau. He’d been admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital with internal hemorrhaging precipitated by a botched kidney biopsy. Less than a week later, he died in the middle of the night, connected by electrodes and wires to blinking and beeping equipment, surrounded by doctors who tried, and failed, to resuscitate him. Just hours before, I’d spent time with him in a different room, one with far less gadgetry. That evening he’d read the newspaper and checked the closing prices of his stocks via telephone, perhaps clinging to these habits to reassure himself, or to reassure me. If he’d been anxious, he didn’t show it. I stayed with him until his longtime girlfriend, a gentle, moon-faced social worker, arrived.
Expecting to either visit or help care for him for the next several days, weeks or months, I turned my cell phone off that night to get some rest. Hospital staff tried to reach me at that number when his vital signs went haywire. My ringing landline eventually roused me. The voice of my younger brother, traveling on business, penetrated my stupor.
“Dad died,” he said. The two syllables reverberated in my chest, as if a heavy door had thud shut.
As the closest next of kin, I dressed and drove to the hospital in stunned silence, save for the thrumming of windshield wipers. Perhaps the night skies wept because I could not. My memory of that early morning is as blurred as rain splattered glass. What I recall: a nurse asked if my brothers and I wanted the hospital to conduct an autopsy. I looked at her blankly, as if she had been speaking in tongues. I phoned my older brother, an Orthodox Jew who lived in California, to cry and consult. He wanted to bury our father, a Hungarian-speaking Holocaust survivor from a Hassidic family, in accordance with Jewish law, ideally within 24 hours, or as soon after that as possible. We decided to forgo the autopsy. My brother offered to arrange the burial. As far as we knew, our father had not expressed any particular wishes. I left the hospital with my father’s wallet, eyeglasses, sneakers and clothing in a paper bag, shocking in its lightness.
I stopped at home to e-mail a few friends with the news, then drove to my father’s house. By 7 a.m. I had let myself in through the side door, the one we normally used. Gentle rays streamed through three skylights in the family room, which my father had renovated into an airy sanctuary following my parents divorce. I approached his desk, strewn with papers and sprinkled with chalk dust. My hands shook as I rummaged through the piles and looked for his black address book, a meticulously kept record of the whereabouts of his family and friends, including men he’d met at Auschwitz. Eventually I found it in a drawer. The sun warmed my back as I sat in my father’s squeaky black vinyl chair and scanned the entries. By then, my older brother’s religious network had, with dizzying, if not startling speed, found a cemetery, a plot, a funeral home and a rabbi. My dazed brain directed my index finger to punch number after number on my father’s cordless phone.
“I’m calling to tell you that my father died. The funeral is tomorrow at 2pm. We’ll sit shiva at his house.” I mentioned both addresses, my voice tinny and remote as if I were a ventriloquist’s doll. I dialed and dialed, each push of a button and beeping tone tethered me to physical reality as I disintegrated.
“My father died,” I said again and again, uttering the surreal mantra each time as if it were the first time, wanting it to be the last time, and wanting it to not be true. Maybe I needed to squeeze the words out of my parched, stale mouth for reality to penetrate, a reality I hadn’t completely wrapped my head around a week before when my father, thanks to his girlfriend’s intervention, had been rushed to the emergency room, his pulse weak and his skin tinged yellow. Because my father had survived the Nazis, I imagined he would survive this as well, if not live forever. He might have believed it, too.
The rub of wheels against asphalt interrupted my dialing trance. My younger brother had arrived from the airport. His presence released a wave of tears.
We looked around the family room. The sunlight illuminated mountains, if not mountain ranges, of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, blue-bound physics journals wrapped in plastic mailing sheaths, of unopened mail that smothered the couch, the round maple dining table, and the maroon countertop connecting the family room to the kitchen. The disorder extended into the dining room, the living room, and the master bathroom. Dishes loitered in the kitchen sink. Bags of newspapers, evidence of attempts to tame the chaos, sagged under the counter, waiting to be taken to the curb.
“At least he left us something to do,” I said. My body convulsed with sobs and wild laughter at this cosmic joke and the monumental absurdity of our task. We had less than a day to prepare the house.
* * *
As a child, the clutter frustrated, but didn’t embarrass me. My father unfurled The Boston Globe and The New York Times across the kitchen table each morning and drank black coffee as he digested the news. He often forgot that the day before, and the day before that, I had shuffled downstairs in pajamas, grumpy and insulted by the sprawl.
“Can’t you clear a space for me?” I asked. Then, too, piles formed on the table and around the house like an evolving landscape of paper stalagmites.
Four years before he died, I moved back to the Boston area from Mexico, where I’d lived for 18 months. When I visited him for dinner, I sorted through the piles of mail and circulars, attempting to make a dent.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Just cleaning a little,” I said. “I’d rather eat on a clear surface.”
“You don’t need to do that,” he said. He shoved the papers aside, as if a small space would suffice.
“Don’t you want to read your mail?”
Stacks of financial statements and notices from hospitals and his health insurance company threatened an avalanche.
“No,” he said. “Most of it isn’t worth opening. I know what’s inside.”
“What about letters from your friends?”
I plucked a hand addressed envelope from the pile and waved it at him, hoping to find an exception.
“I’m sure it’s nothing interesting,” he said. “It’s probably a holiday card. Open it if you don’t believe me.”
I slit the envelope and removed a printed Rosh Hashanah greeting from a colleague and his wife. He was right.
“See?” he chuckled. I had long admired his indifference to convention, but the volume of paper disturbed me.
“Wouldn’t you enjoy the house more if it were clean?” I asked.
“I have better things to do than clean,” he said. “Besides, it doesn’t bother me.”
My father tried to teach me chess when I was growing up. I didn’t have a strategic brain, the ability to keep a straight face or the patience to cultivate either. Nor did I lose gracefully.
“I’d visit more often if there was a place for me to sit,” I said. I pointed at the couch strewn with books and papers, a tube of toothpaste, peanut shells and other domestic detritus. But in stooping to emotional blackmail, I had stupidly given him an opening.
“If you’re not comfortable here we can meet at a restaurant,” he said. Checkmate.
* * *
In an adrenaline-fueled spree, my younger brother and I stuffed months of newspapers into grocery bags and put them in the basement. We dumped mail into cardboard boxes which my brother shuttled upstairs to his old bedroom. We treated groupings of papers on the dining room table like adjacent finds at an archeological site; pile by pile, we ferried them to the second floor for later analysis. We hung stray clean clothing in closets and put the rest by the washing machine. We ran the dishwasher, sponged and wiped the counters, and stuffed trash into shiny black bags. We scooped toothpaste, shaving soap, a toothbrush, a razor, a nail clipper and dental floss from the edge of the bathroom sink and tucked them in the cabinet below. We straightened towels and scrubbed the toilet. My brother took a mop to the floors like a sailor swabbing decks.
I went home to figure out what to wear to the funeral and to draft a eulogy, unsure which would be more difficult. Six months before, I’d resigned from a consulting job and I had not dressed up since. Nor had I ever amassed a wardrobe for every occasion or contingency. Did I still own a black skirt? Rummaging in my closet, I found it, plus a scratchy black rayon cardigan and creased black leather pumps.
I sat down to write.
My older brother arranged for the local Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi to officiate at the funeral. My father occasionally attended services there, having long ago abandoned the conservative synagogue of my childhood. At Chabad, men and women sat separately. Some of the men shuckled, rocking back and forth in prayer, their murmurs punctuated by occasional eruptions in Hebrew. The traditional scene alienated my modern sensibilities. When I asked my father why he went, he said it reminded him of his childhood.
The next day, I dressed and drove myself to the funeral home. The rabbi gathered immediate family in a room off the entrance. Looking at him, I could not perceive his faith and willingness to serve. All I could see was the puffy skin beneath his dark eyes, a pasty complexion, a wiry beard that sprouted at random locations from his bony face, and a black fedora on his head. I did not want to have anything to do with this walking caricature of a religious Jew, overexposed to ancient texts and underexposed to sunshine and exercise.
“May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion,” he said, repeating the centuries-old phrase. It’s as if he had handed me a frayed, flimsy blanket to keep me from freezing to death. I wanted to scream,”Who the hell are you? Your words are meaningless. You don’t know me, you barely remember my father or know who he really was.”
Instead, I said nothing. That we had this rabbi, a rabbi who looked as if he had stepped out of a shtetl, a “rent-a-rabbi” who offered formulaic phrases of solace, rather than custom consolation based on years of connection, exacerbated my pain.
He told us we could wear a black ribbon or tear a garment as a sign of mourning. The ribbon felt sterile. A cop out. I ripped my sweater. I wanted to shred the damn thing until it lay in tatters on my shoulders and then, like Job, collapse onto an ash heap. Instead, I wobbled to the front of the chapel and sat in the second row. My mother sat next to me. I stared at my lap.
Somehow I stood, walked to the podium, and delivered my eulogy. I managed to glance from my text to see a full chapel. I spotted my father’s companion at the rear, lurking like a shadow. I wished she’d been sitting next to me. But she understood and respected my father’s priorities. His family came first, including his former wife, and she probably would not have sat with me even if I’d asked.
By the time I returned to my father’s house from the cemetery, visitors milled about the family room. I recognized my father’s physics colleagues, now a more stooped and greying fraternity, and their wives. My younger brother’s friends, many who had stayed in the area, brought spouses and children. Through my haze, I saw a former colleague of mine and a few of my friends, one who had traveled from Philadelphia.
The house, filled with more life than ever before, buzzed like a cocktail hour. Even though a shiva was supposed to be subdued, the mourners were setting the tone. Bewildered and unsure what to do, I surveyed the unfamiliar scene. The kitchen counters, bare the previous day, had been covered by aluminum platters of chicken, cold cuts, coleslaw, potato and white fish salad, bagels, kugel, fruit, and desserts.
“Where did all the food come from?” I asked no one in particular. That we needed refreshments hadn’t occurred to me. Normally, I thought about food all the time.
“Our congregation sent it,” my older brother said. His Modern Orthodox synagogue in Oakland, whose services I would not attend because I could not abide sex-segregated seating, had ordered enough kosher food for an army. Had I let feminist ideology blind me to their kindness?
As is the custom, I sat on a low stool. My older brother’s wife handed me a plate with a bagel, cream cheese, and salads. I forced myself to chew and swallow. I couldn’t taste anything. My other sister-in-law, who’d stepped into the role of hostess, walked by holding her seven-month old son, his eyes wide with curiosity. For the first time, I wished I had a baby, a demanding creature to take my mind off the impossible fact that my father’s body lay in a grave 20 miles away, at the edge of a cemetery I had never heard of before, in a town with no connection to his life and routines.
But I did not have a baby, a husband, or a partner. I wanted to turn the clock back. I wished that I had not moved from city to city, country to country, but that I had stayed and built a community of friends to sit shiva with me, as if being prepared for this awful moment should have been my goal all along. That evening I cried myself to sleep.
My sobs erupted afresh when I pulled into the driveway the next morning and saw my father’s barely used silver Prius, never to be driven by him again. My older brother, already there, hugged me as I entered, bawling. A visiting friend of his seemed startled by my display, as if I should have confined my tears to the funeral.
I will cry as long as I have to and want to, I thought.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as I joined them at the table, refusing to banish myself to another room. They discussed their children’s educations, seemingly oblivious to my personal cataclysm. That I felt like a third wheel at my own father’s shiva crushed my heart even more. My father had often praised the psychological value of Jewish rituals but, so far, the shiva had been salt in the wound.
“I asked Chabad to send a minyan,” my brother said after his friend left. “They’ll be coming every evening.”
“Don’t you think we’ll be able to get enough people on our own?” I retorted. That I would not count in the quorum for prayers enraged me. I also didn’t want strange men barging into the house.
“I’d rather be safe than sorry,” he said.
I wanted a more intimate gathering, not Grand Central Station, but my words had been buried deep inside and I couldn’t make a case for keeping the Chabadniks away.
In the late afternoon, a band of males, the oldest in his early 20s, whooshed through the front door into the living room, tzitzit flapping from under their shirts and over their jeans. Their restless vitality clashed with my devastation. Someone had arranged chairs but the minyan insisted on standing, as if remaining on their feet would hustle things along.
The first phrase of the mourner’s kaddish, a rhythmic but tongue twisting prayer in Aramaic, flew out of the leader’s mouth:
Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash, sh’mei rabah.
I hadn’t said those words in years. I couldn’t keep up, let alone hear my own voice. My attempt at a meditative, contemplative recitation, to sound each syllable, had been hijacked, the spirit of the prayer sacrificed to speed. The group departed as it had entered, hurriedly and without ceremony, their cars revving before they drove away. Their fulfilled obligation left me feeling invisible and irrelevant, emptier and more distraught than before, something I had not thought possible.
That evening, after the sky had darkened, my brothers, their wives and I sat around the table in the family room and snacked on fruit. Someone knocked at the door. We looked at each other. Who could it be?
I opened it. Two men in their late 30s, in knee length black coats, black fedoras, and full beards stood in front of me. I stared at these characters, who seemed to have stepped from the pages of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. They didn’t look directly at me, an unmarried woman wearing pants.
“Is this Shmuel Zamvil’s house?” asked the man on the right, glancing away. A shadow of uncertainty flickered across his face.
“Who?” I asked.
“We came to pay a shiva call,” said the other man.
“We are sitting shiva for Zoltan Fried,” I said. Perhaps their appearance was not a bizarre coincidence.
“Ah, yes, Zoltan,” said the first man to the second. “That’s Shmuel Zamvil.”
They had spoken my father’s Hebrew name, that of his great-grandfather. It had been used ritually at synagogue, but never at home. Even though the rabbi probably said it during the funeral, I didn’t hear it then, or for years before that.
“What are your names?” I asked, gesturing them inside while keeping a respectful distance. I knew not to shake their hands.
“I’m Moshe,” said the first.
“And I’m Sholom,” said the other. “We came from Borough Park.”
I had visited that religious enclave once, decades earlier, with my parents to see some of my father’s distant relatives. Moshe and Sholom, the brother and husband of my father’s second cousin, respectively, had driven five hours to pay their respects. Even my older brother did not expect these two black-hatted souls to appear.
“Please, spend the night,” we urged them, in a rare moment of sibling agreement.
“No, no,” they said. “We can drive back. It’s no big deal.”
“That’s crazy!” we said. “You won’t get back until three in the morning. Sleep here, please. We want you to stay.”
They relented. I found sheets, pillow cases and blankets before I drove home. That my father’s distant kin filled his house with their old world neshamas, imbuing the shiva with a degree of presence and holiness that had eluded it so far, helped me sleep.
By the time I returned to my father’s house the following morning, the men had departed for New York but, somehow, had left me with the barest sense of peace. It didn’t last long. When my older brother told me that his family would fly to California before the shiva ended, a wave of disillusionment crashed against my still wobbly sense of self. My face must have betrayed me.
“We’ll spend all of Shabbat here,” he said, as if to compensate.
That afternoon a more mature minyan arrived. They didn’t rush. The words of the mourners’ kaddish began to feel less awkward. I recovered enough of myself to speak to a few of the worshippers after the service. I couldn’t comprehend their religiosity but I appreciated their willingness to do this mitzvah.
“Do you want me to cancel the minyan?” my brother asked before he flew home.
The initial flood of visitors had dwindled. I did not want to sit alone in my father’s house, nor did I wish to abbreviate the shiva. Although I would not count as one of the ten required for prayer, I could at least count on the minyan to show up when I wasn’t sure others would, even members of my family.
“Don’t cancel,” I said, surprising the person I had been just days before. “I’d like them to come.”
* * *
There is no playbook for loss, especially when it’s sudden. Grief is both universal and uniquely personal, with unpredictable trajectories and cycles. As I’ve discovered, grief ebbs and flows and changes shape over time. Like a river, it can’t be boxed in. Even religious rituals and laws, intended as handrails through grief’s initial stages, might not support everyone equally well.
If Facebook had existed then, would it might have helped me reach solid ground sooner? If I’d been able to share that sudden news with a single post, rather than calling one person at a time when I could barely speak, or looking up e-mail addresses, would the emojis, virtual hugs and responses have supported me? Would tagging people have helped me connect with those who knew my father, given that some of the voice messages I left for old friends were not received? Could I have summoned a personalized minyan, one more at my speed, with a few key strokes? I imagine that a loving web of comments and reminiscences from people who’d known my father, but who lived far away, might have kept me from tumbling into a deep depression in the weeks and months after he passed away.
Today, more than ever, we can personalize our approach to mourning and grieving, rather than letting tradition dictate or shape our response. This greater freedom can be comforting or confusing. As horrendous as it is to anticipate the death of a loved one, it’s worth considering beforehand how one might use all the tools and technology available to both respond and take care of oneself.
That I’m even writing this shocks my pre-Facebook self, the one who penned letters and couldn’t fathom sharing private matters on a publicly traded platform. That self had no idea what a status update or newsfeed was, and didn’t think about what to broadcast to the world, let alone when or how. Today, in theory, I could convene a virtual minyan or a support circle via conferencing technology such as Zoom, and announce it on Facebook, rather than hoping or expecting that people who barely know me would be able to find the right words.
On the flip side, the death of a loved one offers the ultimate excuse to unplug and find solace and connection among nature, loved ones or animals. In the years since my father’s passing, I have discovered that spending time in nature comforts me more than interacting with people in a ritualized setting, no matter how well meaning their intentions. Should the unthinkable happen again and someone else I love leaves this world abruptly, I hope I will have enough presence of mind to remember that honoring the dead includes taking care of myself, and that might mean leaving some traditions behind.