As I come to the end of my three-month stint as Rabbi-in-Residence for JEU, and reflect on the privilege of being able to offer a Jewish rabbinic (and psychotherapeutic) perspective on Judaic themes and current events, I find myself thinking about loss.
How do we manage loss in everyday life?
Loss of a job, loss of a loved one or friend, loss of money or something we value, loss of a relationship, loss of a pet, loss of an opportunity, loss of one’s looks, loss of an election? Losses are all around us. They are part of the fabric of life.
All losses challenge us emotionally. How do we respond? Do we become angry or bitter? despairing - or sad? resigned? accepting? Do we express these feelings - or cover them up? Do we try and compensate for the loss, or do we spend time mourning what has now gone? These are the challenges that life brings us, for loss is a shared and universal human experience.
And all losses involve some loss of hope: hope for continuity, hope for love, hope for security, hope for a future brighter than the past.
For hope is inbuilt into the human psyche – but the reality of loss can attack that hopefulness like a kick in the stomach, like a thief in the night.
As with all the emotional realities that we face as human beings, the Hebrew Bible offers its own insights and perspectives. This week’s sedrah – Chayai Sara (Genesis 23 - 25:18) – begins with loss: the death of the matriarch Sara at the legendary age of 127. This is narrated matter-of-factly:
‘Sara died in Kiryat Arba – that is Hebron – in the land of Canaan’ (23:2).
No other details are given. And this is always an opportunity for later commentators to add their own colour to the monochrome text.
Some linked Sara’s death to the Torah text that immediately precedes it: the trauma of Isaac’s near-sacrifice by his father Abraham. So she dies of shock at hearing the news – or of heartbreak. One midrash has her dying of shock on receiving a false report that Abraham had killed their son at God’s command. (Compare Facebook’s notorious false anti-Clinton news reports planted by Trump supporters before the election).
One modern commentator, Aviva Zornberg, speculates psychologically about how Sara, although she knew that Isaac had survived, could not bear to live any longer in a world as unreliable, unpredictable – and threatening – as the world she found herself in, where questions of who will live and who will die seem to hang so fragilely in the balance.
Perhaps we too get in touch with these deeper feelings after any terrorist attack in our own times. There is a long back-story to narratives about a God who commands murder. Or rather: there’s a long and bloody history of people who believe that their God commands them to kill others in the name of that God.
So Sara dies and Abraham weeps for his loss (23:2). And then he gets on with life. He negotiates for a burial plot for Sara, and having bought a plot of land from the local inhabitants he proceeds to bury her (23: 3-20) and then sets out, though the servant in charge of his household, to find a wife for Isaac, their son (chapter 24).
The long chapter that describes this search for a wife is a tour-de-force of Biblical storytelling – and it ends with this poignant sentence:
‘And Isaac brought her [Rebekkah] into the tent of his mother Sara and he took Rebekkah as his wife and he loved her and Isaac was comforted after his mother - acharei imo’ (24:67).
We might expect ‘after the death of his mother’. But no, the word ‘death’ is absent. We know this is what it means - but the narrator-artists who composed the text have chosen to suppress the word. Through the absence of this word ‘death’ in the text, they provoke us into thinking about it. It is hidden in plain sight.
What does this missing word - ‘death’ - reveal? Some people – was Isaac one of them? – wish to deny the reality of death.
The fantasy is that if you don’t mention something it’s as if it hasn’t happened.
After all, he’d been through his own near-death experience. Was the immediate loss of his mother too much to bear after his own trauma? So is the absence of the word ‘death’ pointing to a denial of reality?
Or is it the opposite - a way of speaking about how the loss was healed? Does the comfort he had received when Sara was alive metamorphose into the new comfort he found with Rebekkah? Is the pain of the death of his fiercely protective mother erased through the love of a good woman? Does giving and receiving love heal our losses?
There is no hint in the Torah of what Sara’s death meant to Isaac. But we sense from this concluding verse how present Sara was for him as he takes Rebekkah into his mother’s intimate space, her tent. And through the intimacy with her – ‘and he loved her’ – he does find comfort for the loss he has suffered. More human connectedness, more closeness, more intimacy – this seems to be one way, the Torah intuits, of managing feelings of loss, dealing with the pain.
Perhaps we don’t have a good enough, rich enough, vocabulary to talk about what we do with the experience of loss.
I just used the words ‘managing’ the loss, ‘dealing’ with the loss – but that is too business-like, too bureaucratic a language to evoke the powerful and subtle stands of feeling that death and loss evoke in us. Some people want people around them, some people want to be left alone. We each need to find what route is right for us.
The idea of ‘closure’
One thing I do know is that the modern jargon of talking about ‘closure’ after a death is quite unhelpful. This idea of ‘closure’ is now prevalent in the aftermath of any injustice or painful event. But it can be coercive to expect it for oneself - or to have others expect it of you. ‘Have you had closure yet?’ has become a modern mantra - but it promotes an illusion.
‘Closure’ came into contemporary thought from American social psychology. It originates in a 1993 paper from Arie Kruglanski about people’s desire for a clear and definite answer to their life questions - and their aversion to ambiguity. Kruglanski developed what became known as the ‘Need for Closure Scale’ - but this concept of ‘closure’ was gradually transformed from something descriptive of what people wished for into some kind of ideal about what they should have. Psychological health however is about being able to manage ambiguity, not-knowing, uncertainty – without collapsing into the straightjacket of false certainties.
What Kruglanski’s work spawned is a pseudo-solution to a universal problem. ‘Closure’ is a flawed belief that assimilating grief and losses and death into our lives is a process that can be closed, finished with. Jewish tradition however recognises that losses are real, and lasting: they will happen to you and me, they happen to all of us, and the work of mourning can last a lifetime. Isaac didn’t have ‘closure’ about his mother’s death when he and Rebekkah married. Like Abraham his father, he got on with life.
We have to learn to live with our sadness, our regrets - or sometimes with our lack of sadness, or our relief, or whatever it is that emerges in the wake of a death.
Our reaction to loss and death is always going to be particular to us. We are allowed to be idiosyncratic.
Sigmund Freud once wrote a condolence letter in which he put his finger on something crucial. His own daughter Sophie had died in 1920 when she was 27, and nine years later, on what would have been her 36th birthday, Freud wrote to a colleague, Ludwig Binswanger, whose son had just died:
‘we will never find a substitute [after a loss]. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually, this is how it should be, it is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish.’
Freud gives us permission to keep on loving what has been lost for as long as we need to. Something else – or someone else – may come along and take the place of what has been lost. But it will be something, or someone, different. And that is how it should be.
Rabbi Howard Cooper is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, and a writer. He is the author of The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life and he blogs on Jewish issues and current affairs at www.howardcoopersblog.blogspot.com