Thursday, November 01, 2007

Question & Answer With Dixie Yid - Expressing Grief

A Simple Jew asks:

After returning from a shiva house, you wrote to me that you found it remarkable that the widow had a tremendous sense of composure and did not show any outward signs of sadness.

Firstly, please do not misinterpret my words or think me to be insensitive. I understand that people express grief in different ways. In our era, indeed there have even been great tzaddikim who have grieved privately in the manner you described. Yet, not crying seems completely foreign to me. At the funeral of my grandmother in 1999, I asked Mr. J why it seemed like no one else was crying and I, on the other hand, was bawling my eyes out. Mr. J turned to me and said, "You have to realize, you have a different kind of heart."

The Sudilkover Rebbe, though also seems to share my type of heart. When I spoke to him on the phone as he sat shiva, he told me that he would find himself breaking out crying at times as he thought about his father.

To me, crying is giving a true expression to your inner self and not crying is attempting to put on a façade of composure; attempting to fool others into believing that you are really an emotionally strong person. When a person grieves inside but not externally, he is not exemplifying the principle of tocho kebaro; he is lacking the quality of simplicity.

As much as I can respect the fact that others may have a differing viewpoint, I cannot change my own on this topic. So, my friend, could you please share with me your thoughts on what I wrote above?

Dixie Yid answers:

I definitely do not have the same difficulties with this type of reaction as you do. Part of the problem is how the issue is framed. Rather than thinking that a composed mourner is trying to "fool" other people, I see it more as an issue of 1) that person's personal sense of privacy and 2) a certain sense/type of dignity. I do not think that one who does not cry publicly necessarily feels any less of a sense of loss than another would in their situation.

I think that certain people, especially those who have a great sense of communal responsibility, create something of an emotional wall that separates them from others. This serves the purpose of protecting the person him or herself from being overwhelmed by the emotions of others. I think it also serves to maintain the proper level of reverence and awe that is indeed appropriate in certain leadership relationships. I think that some people may feel that it would be "wearing their heart on their sleeve" to publicly display emotion. These people reserve their outward expressions of grief for private times.

I also think that some may feel that having everyone see their pain out in the open impairs their dignity. I think that there is something very good to be said for the feeling of dignity and having an outward sense of repose, which facilitates the kind of reverence and respectful distance that is sometimes necessary for role models in the Jewish community. They probably feel that displaying every feeling of ache and grief in public takes away from the somewhat exalted feeling that others may have towards them.

I realize that the way I have phrased that makes it susceptible to misunderstanding. I do not mean that in any sense of ga'ava, arrogance. Rather, there is a healthy and good kind of self-respect and esteem that is necessary for a Jew. Just as Moshe Rebbeinu's knowledge that Hashem said that he was the most humble man in the world did not take away from the fact of his humility, so too a sense of dignity and self-esteem is appropriate for many of those in leadership. And that level of respect and reverence for leaders is mandated by the Torah as well, so the emotional distance is not for the mourner's own benefit, but for other people's. The Gemara in Kiddushin even learns out from the verse, "Es Hashem Elokecha Tira," "The L-rd your G-d you shall fear," to include a mitzva of fear/reverence for Torah scholars (from the extra "es" in the pasuk).

I heard that the Lubavitcher Rebbe made no public show of emotion when he lost his beloved Rebbetzin, Chaya Mushka, in 1988. However, I have no doubt that he mourned grievously in private.

I personally am the "crying at funerals" type. However, I have to be aware that no two people are the same and I think that there can be legitimate differences between people in this area.


At November 1, 2007 at 6:29:00 AM EDT, Blogger Alice said...

I am the sob-to-an-embarrassing-degree sort. So if I had the strength to not cry I would love to stand there like a statue because I can't stop bawling- loudly, hanging on to the person I'm there with, etc. Can't help it. It makes me not want to go.

At November 1, 2007 at 9:00:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

1. Not everyone has time to come to terms with their feelings in time for the funeral.. let's not forget denial is the first human response to such kinds of shocking news.. Not to mention the shock itself can take days to wear off. We don't always know how to feel about something right away.

2. @DixieYid, I can't believe you didn't mention "VaYidom Aharon".. :) Gedolim serving the klal might be said to be like the kohen in the middle of the avodah. (agav, The Noam Elimelech brings down that Tzaddikim are called kohanim, as is HaShem called a Kohen, according to the Talmud)

3. In my own understanding/belief there are people who feel everything deeply and in the open, and their avodah is to build walls and hold it inside, and there are other people who have a hard time connecting emotionally to things and they show their strength by actually opening up and letting their feelings out. (It's about whether the person is din-based or ahavah-based, and what their tikkun is)

At November 1, 2007 at 9:54:00 AM EDT, Blogger Akiva said...

This question would best be addressed by those who have sat shiva, particularly for parents. My wife, who has lost both her parents, speaks of the incredible significance of the shiva process.

Something about the process (and B"H I have not sat) seems to ground very well.

At November 1, 2007 at 10:01:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Akiva: I have noticed that your wife has posted before on Mystical Paths. Perhaps you could encourage her to write a posting on the significance of the shiva process for your blog.

I for one would be facinated to read her thoughts and I am sure readers of both our blogs would benefit tremendously from her insight.

I hope you will consider asking her.

At November 1, 2007 at 11:41:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that one who holds his emotions is "toykhoy sheloy kebaroy" at all. It talks about different issues.

At November 1, 2007 at 12:11:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can only speak about my own personal experience with losing my parents; I wouldn't presume to make judgments about anyone else's visible signs of grief. I really don't think the quantity of tears has any correlation with the depth of pain in the mourner, and I think it's a little harsh to say that having composure is putting on a facade. I don't think it's dishonest to grieve inwardly, not outwardly; in fact, a showy display of sobbing would seem fake to me.

My father had a long illness, so, for me, there was a long period of emotional preparation and grieving before he actually passed away. At the funeral, I felt the intense sense of loss, but I somehow had no tears on that day. I was already emotionally drained. I remember feeling that I had to be strong--I couldn't fall apart--so that I could help my grieving mother.

In contrast, my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. My sister and I sat with her at the hospital through that last night and day of her life, each of us with a hand upon her arm, and we grieved together as we witnessed her slipping away. The morning of the funeral, I went through the motions of getting my family ready, but it was like sleepwalking, just going through the motions; I later discovered that my jacket and skirt were mismatched, and it was all so meaningless--I didn't care. At the funeral, I was numb. I can't tell you whether I cried or not. If I did, it certainly wasn't "for show," and if I didn't, it wasn't because of a sense of dignity. Whatever it was, was. Hearing the eulogies at the funeral and later, when her friends made shiva calls, I was overcome with a sense of how much my mother had been loved and valued by all who knew her, so I know there was a lot of happiness mixed in with the sadness.

Grief is complex, and it doesn't occur only at a certain place and time. My losses occurred 20 and 11 years ago, and I still miss my parents, every single day.

At November 1, 2007 at 1:08:00 PM EDT, Blogger DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


Understood. Yes, I think that different people are just different in this area and it's great when there's no wall between what's inside and what is outside.


Good points. Yes, I should have thought about "Vayidom Aharon." It's a good connection and ties in well with what I was saying. I definitely hear what you're saying as well about different people having different natures and based on those natures, having a different tikun.

Even though I do usually cry at funerals (which I don't happen to go to very often), in general I'm of the second type that you mentioned, with difficulty connecting emotionally. So according to what you've said, my avoda is to work on expressing and connecting to emotion more. I am working on that to some extent and I see some progress.


Certainly, no one, least of which myself, can really speak to this issue, having not gone through it with someone close to me, as especially Shoshana (Bershad) has. I would also be interested in hearing how your wife would answer this question if she could write a guest post here, I would be interested in reading that as well.


Thank you for your honest words. Interestingly enough, the death in the shiva that I was at was perhaps not as sudden as your mothers, but it was not exactly expected as little as a week beforehand either. Although there was illness long before that, they didn't realize that death was so imminent.

It sounds as if there was no room for any "cheshbonos," calculations in the case of your mother's passing. Even though it was a while ago for you, I'm sorry you did have to lose your parents.

May we all not be tested in how we react in these situations!

-Dixie Yid

At November 1, 2007 at 1:10:00 PM EDT, Blogger DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

A Simple Jew, I wanted to share with your readers a comment and my response that I got on my blog in my post linking to this one...

Anonymous said...
Amazing hashgacha pratis that this topic should come up. Just yesterday at shacharis, the baal tefillah was a man in his late thirties who was saying his last set of kaddishes before his year of availus for his mother was to end. Half-way through his final kaddish, he could not continue, as he was mamash crying. He struggled his way through the end of kaddish, his voice cracking from tears and stood by the amud for a good few minutes. When he finally turned around, it was evident that he still had not composed himself... he walked all the way to his makom in tears. The entire kehilah felt his pain- I myself was on the verge of breaking down as well... it was a universal sadness. It's not to be unexpected when you think about it. But in my experience, this type of thing has been very rare; almost unprecedented. And it will, do doubt, make a positive roshem on me forever.

Would love to hear your thoughts about real emotions (crying/smiling, etc.) during shemoneh esrei, i.e. how "real" is the conversation?

~Yavoh Yedid

November 1, 2007 8:43 AM

DixieYid said...


That definitely must have been a difficult experience, seeing someone in pain lilke that and knowing that there is nothing that you could do about it.

The hardest time like that for my was not at my own grandmother's funeral, a few years ago. It was at the funeral for a 23 year old girl who was about to start medical school. That was the most difficult funeral I have ever been to. She had a large family and there were hundreds of people at the funeral, but it was horrible. From the women's side, there was screaming and sobbing going on almost the entire time. I cannot even believe that I was able to stay there the whole time. Needless to say, there was "not a dry eye in the house."

As far as Shemoneh Esreh, it's tough. When you're talking to another person, you can see him there listening and reacting to what you're saying. You may smile or react in other ways emotionally because you can see that someone is listening.

Hashem has hidden Himself in such a way that even though you and I *know* that He is there and listening on an intellectual level, since we can't *see* him, we (or at least I) don't really *feel* that he is there much of the time. That's the challenge. Having a *real* conversation with Hashem evokes *real* feelings.

The best eitza I have used so far is using that space between "Yihihu l'ratzon" and "Elokai netzor," for a short hisbodedus session. Speaking to Hashem in my own words just makes it realer to me, so that's one eitza. (Although sepparate time for Hisbodedus in addition to that is the ideal.)

What are *your* thoughts on the "realness" of the conversation in Shemoneh Esreh?

-Dixie Yid

November 1, 2007 11:55 AM

At November 1, 2007 at 5:45:00 PM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Nice post.
My wife lost both of her parents 'out of the blue' within a five month span. While I did cry both during the hespedim I gave and while listen to others speak, I can understand that not everyone deals with avelalus the same way.
As a spouse, I often put on a straight face around my wife, b/c at times there is no choice.

Shiva does help, but as someone told me when I told them about my mother-in-law being nifter, "It hurts. There's no way around it. Some days are better than others."

R Y Salanter has been quoted as saying that even one's face is considered a reshus ha rabim. How we let others see us is something to keep in mind, too.

At November 1, 2007 at 10:10:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ASJ, this is such a personal experience. I don't think any two people go through it in the same way.

When my Mother A"H left the world, I spoke to her Neshoma while it was still in the room. During the shiva, there were times I cried, because it hurt ME that I could not do more for her while she was suffering (my guilt). Then, as that Shabbos came in, I heard her voice call my (english) name. That helped me to realize that she was okay; she was letting me know it was okay. B"H

Most of the shiva (cacoon) was spent in solitary reflection. The people that visited me were more uncomfortable than I was and I found it very interesting. But, the whole shiva experience was spent in a netherworld.

As I moved back into everyday reality, there were times of tears, and then other times of just getting through each minute. B"H I can say that I passed thru each stage in an accepting way, because I knew this was Hashem's plan for all of us.

The experience of two other people I know who lost a parent (or both in one year), was not the same. One person cried whenever I met her. The other one was angry at the world, only spoke to certain people, and totally dismissed everyone else. And this person is still teetering on that fine line between both worlds.

Then, I remember when a very much loved Rabbi passed away many years ago. All his talmidos during the hespedim cried like babies, because of the loss we all felt.

Each person, depending on their relationship with the deceased, and with themselves, will behave differently.

The accepting person is one of great emuna. They totally trust Hashem, G-d, and rest in the world of bitachon.

It is this emuna that each of us must urgently strengthen greatly in these days as we listen to the footsteps of Moshiach echoing throughout the world.


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