The Psychology of Sad: A Yizkor Sermon
Several years ago, I received an email inviting me to take a personal health survey on a website called “Real Age.” The purpose of the survey was to compare one’s chronological age with what they call one’s “real age,” which is determined by some formula which factors in both the state of the health of one’s body and the healthy or unhealthy behaviors one engages in. While I was less than satisfied with the results of the survey, it did inspire me to sign up for their free wellness emails which I now receive about every three days. Each email contains three short articles about simple things that we can do to improve our health. They are articles like, “Eat Mexican Tonight and Fight Colon Cancer” and “Clear Brain Plaques With This Nutrient” which happens to be Vitamin D, and “The Food That Helps You Feel Carefree” which happens to be, believe or not, tuna fish. Though sometimes based upon obscure studies, these are fascinating articles which offer some truly helpful tips, though I suppose there is a limit to how often one can be told to drink green tea and go for a walk. Every once in a while I forward a whole bunch of these articles to my two daughters so that they too can reap some of their benefits. I used to send them to the Cantor, but she kept sending them back to me, saying, “Well, are you going to do this or not?”
While most of the Real Age articles are about improving one’s physical health, every once in a while they publish one about improving one’s emotional health. One such article was entitled, “Sad? Don’t Forget About It.” I read it and I immediately thought of this Yizkor service and this very special gathering of mourners.
According to this article, studies show that when we are feeling sad, it is important that we do not brush aside our sad feelings and try to forget them, but rather we need to embrace them and remember the source of our sadness if we wish to truly heal ourselves. To quote this article, “Knowing what’s making you sad is key to dealing with it, learning from it, and letting go. If you don’t process what you’re going through, sad thoughts may continue to linger, and sad signals may even get stored in your body.”
If this be true, and I trust that it is, then once again, I am amazed at the profound wisdom of those rabbis long ago who established the Jewish practices and traditions surrounding death and mourning. They told us, “Do not try to run from your sadness and your pain. Do not try to hide it and gloss it over. Rather, you must embrace it, for only through embracing the pain of your sadness can you learn how to deal with it and live with it.” Ours is not a tradition of wakes and calling funerals “celebrations.” Quite the contrary. It is a tradition of Keriah; of tearing our clothing in order to acknowledge that our loss has created a tear in the very fabric of our lives. It is a tradition of Shivah; of stopping our lives for seven days so that we can focus on the grief of our loss. It is a tradition of Kever Avot; of visiting the graves of our loved ones before our major holidays. It is a tradition of Yahrzeits and Yizkor; of setting aside special times dedicated to remembering our loved ones now gone. How very wise those rabbis were, for long before the days of Sigmund Freud and the birth of psychology, they understood all too well that in remembering there is healing.
The rabbis also understood that human beings need the structure of specially appointed times in order to facility and focus that process of remembering. Of course we are fully capable of remembering our loved ones on days other than Yahrzeits; at times other than during Yizkor services. But if left to our own devices, those memories are usually pushed to the back of our minds, for the challenges of day-to-day living tend to demand most if not all of our attention, so our thoughts focus on them. The memories of our loved ones will float to the surface occasionally, but only briefly, as our minds are overwhelmed with filling more immediate needs.
This, by the way, is the very same reason why we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, and holidays like Valentine’s Day. Of course, we love all our dear ones 24/7, but usually we do not have the opportunity to give that love a lot of thought or attention. However, when we arrive at a birthday or an anniversary, or Valentine’s Day, we have been given the opportunity to focus on our feeling; to place the demands of day-to-day living on hold as we direct our attentions to telling and showing our dear ones how much we love them.
Yahrzeits, Yizkor, Kever Avot, Shivah; they are no different from this. They, too, are opportunities to place the demands of day-to-day living on hold as we direct our attentions to telling and showing our dear ones who are no longer with us how much we love them still. And with the telling and the showing most certainly comes the remembering. And with the remembering comes the healing.
Yet there is something within us which calls upon us to resist this process of remembering and healing. Perhaps it is because we live in a society which is obsessed with fleeing from pain or discomfort. Most of us grew up without the benefits of air conditioning, yet we were able to survive and adapt to the hot, muggy days of summer. But today, who goes outside if they do not have to in the middle of August? We have invested millions of dollars into the development of drugs to eliminate the very sensation of pain. In our society, pain is something to be avoided at all costs, rather than confronted.
Yet to avoid the pain of our loss is to deny ourselves the healing of memory. And memory does heal us. For the more we remember our loved ones, the less our memories dwell on the pain of our loss and the more we recall the pleasure and the joy and the love they brought into our lives. The more we remember, the more our memories morph from anguish to gratitude; from the sting of loss to the sweet caress of love.
My mother died the agonizing death of cancer. As her end drew near, delirium engulfed her. The last time I heard her voice was over the telephone, the Cantor, Shira, Josh, and I were in Los Angeles. Josh, who had recently been diagnosed with autism, was undergoing an extensive evaluation at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. I made the phone call while waiting to meet with his doctor. I felt terribly torn for I needed to be with my son on the West Coast, but I also needed to at least stay connected with my mother on the East Coast. As my sister kept me abreast of my mother’s condition, in the background I could hear my mother, calling out in her delerium, “Is that Henry? Where is Henry? Is he coming? Is he here?” Those words cut through me like a knife. They were the last words I ever heard my mother speak. She died literally hours before I was able to bring my family home to Iowa and rush off to her side in Florida.
The pain of that memory encapsulated for me my pain at the loss of my mother. Even as I speak of it now, I feel a painful twinge. But over the passing of the years, I have found that by embracing my memories of my mother rather than avoiding them because of the pain they may evoke, I have been able to heal from the pain of that particular memory, and from the pain of her passing. For the more I chose to remember, the more the painful memories gave way to the warm and loving memories, not of her passing but of her life. Now, when I think of my mother, I do not dwell on her cries born of delirium but rather on how she would go out of her way to make each and every member of our family happy; how, whenever she discovered a dish that I liked to eat, she would serve it to me every single day, week after week, until I could no longer bear to look at it. And when I would finally say, “Stop! I can’t stand to eat this any more!” her reply was always the same; “But you used to love it!” All she ever wanted to do was to make me happy. And she did that with everyone in our family. She was the personification of familial love. As I remember the love, and not the pain, I am healed.
So it is with all of us, or so it can be with all of us. We are gathered here to remember. Remembering is so very important. That is why we call this service Yizkor – “Remember” with an exclamation point, for the Hebrew word is in the command form. Let us not hesitate to take every single opportunity our lives and our Judaism offer us to remember our loved ones. Let us not be afraid to fill our minds and our hearts with their memories. For the more we choose to remember, the more we come to understand that truly only their bodies have gone. The essence of who they were still lives within us. They still speak to us. They still accompany us as we travel the path of life. All that they were, we carry inside of us, in our memories of them. And the more we choose to remember, the more we bring them back to life; the more we bring all that was so good and wonderful about them back to life. The more we remember, the more we ourselves are healed of the pain their passing has inflicted.
We have gathered here in this sanctuary, for this special service, dedicated to the memory of our loved ones. May our thoughts of them now fill us more with joy than with sadness; more with gratitude than with pain.
Tags: "Real Age" website, Autism, Dealing With the Death of a Loved One, Gail Karp, Helene Karp my mother, Henry Karp, Jayne Karp Langs my sister, Joshua Karp, Kaddish, Keriah, Kever Avot, Memory, mourners, Remembering, Sadness, Shira Karp, Shivah, Yahrzeit, YizkorYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.