Sunday, April 24, 2011

The First Week

By Susan Esther Barnes

I learned of my father's death early Saturday evening. An email went out from the synagogue to the congregation on Sunday morning. On Sunday evening, on less than 12 hours' notice, there were 30 people in my home for a minyan.

On the way over, Rabbi Stacy had stopped at the synagogue to pick up the prayer books we use at a mourning service, but neither she nor her husband could get the key to the office to work, so they arrived without them. We went through the entire service without the benefit of the prayer books, and nobody missed a word. Nobody missed a beat. There are those who think Reform Jews are ignorant and uneducated. I beg to differ.

When we rose and faced east for the Bar'chu, we looked out the windows over the small common area of trees and bushes behind my home. As we stood there, a man started to raise the blinds in a home across the way. Once they were up, he looked across at us. I am sure he wondered why there were a bunch of people here, standing at the window, looking out at him. After a moment, he closed the blinds again.

I know he had no way of knowing what was going on, but I couldn't help but think, "He is trying to close himself off from death. We are opening ourselves to death's reality. He would be better off if he would open the blinds and join us."

For the first couple of days, I couldn't sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time. I was tired. Time seemed to stretch out in a way it never has before. No one thing seemed to take a long time; it was just the accumulated weight of it all.

Then the cards and the emails started to arrive. As a member of the synagogue board of directors, I've been writing sympathy notes to congregants for a couple of years now. I tried to put a lot of thought into what I said in those notes.

On the receiving end of such notes for the first time, I noticed that some people wrote a paragraph or two, and some just signed their name to a pre-printed sympathy card. That is when I learned that it doesn't really matter what you write. Sure, it's nice to get a card that has something personal written in it. But at the end of the day, what matters is that the person took the time to send one. Whether they write something in it or not is greatly outweighed by the simple fact that they were thoughtful enough to send one.

On Thursday night, someone from the synagogue delivered a meal to our house. When I agreed to receive the meal, I didn't think it was a big deal. After all, I had been eating. But when I opened the bag and smelled the chicken, I realized it was the first hot, decent meal I'd had since the night before my father died. I've never had much patience for cooking, and I have even less now, so I had basically been snacking. Knowing that the meal came from the synagogue and was made with love made it that much better.

On Friday evening, my husband and I went to the synagogue. Normally I get there early to greet people at the front door. This time, we arrived just before services started, and there were others there to greet us.

My friend Judi sat with us in the rabbi's office and held my hand as services started. The beginning of the service is a series of joyful songs. Mourners traditionally don't enter the sanctuary until after L'cha Dodi, the song welcoming the Sabbath Bride, because we are not capable in joining in the joy of the opening songs at this time.

Usually I open the synagogue doors at the end of L'cha Dodi to "enable" the Sabbath Bride to come in. This time Judi and Ken opened the doors, and after the song, John and I walked in to take our seats.

When the time came for the prayer for healing, I realized that, although I had been saying my father's name for the last few years, I would no longer be asking for healing for him. I skipped his name, and went on to the name of my friend Mark, and Frank, the significant other of a friend at work. Then I started to cry, both because I could no longer say the prayer of healing for my father, and because I heard other people asking for healing for me.

At the Saturday morning service, I wrapped myself in my tallit (prayer shawl), so it completely covered my upper body below the neck. I didn't know I was going to do that, but it felt right to wrap myself in it that way. I was so grateful that I was in the habit of wearing a large, full tallit. Many people, especially women, wear a much smaller tallit, more like a large scarf, completely incapable of enveloping a person the way mine did.

For much of the service on both Friday and Saturday, I didn't sing or join in the prayers. I closed my eyes and listened. The sound of the congregation was unbelievably beautiful. I don't think they have any idea how beautiful they sound; I certainly had no idea before this past weekend, when I had been singing rather than really listening.

The songs felt like warm, gentle waves lapping over me. I felt raw, like my body was an open wound, which the waves of sound could not touch or heal. Yet the waves washed over me, surrounding me, creating a barrier between me and the rest of the world, assuring me that although they could not heal the hurt I am now feeling, they will embrace me and protect me from other hurts, and allow my healing process the space to begin on its own in its own time.

I am still in the time called anunit, the period between death and burial. I still don't know when the burial will be. Time is still moving at a freakishly slow pace. It feels like it's been a month since my father died.

It is possible that the only people at the burial will be my father's widow, my sister, my husband, and me. My sister asked me to say a few prayers at the burial. Rabbi Michael loaned me a copy of the rabbi manual he uses at life cycle events so I will have something appropriate to say.

I don't know how this is all going to play out over the coming weeks and months. I know I could have struggled through this on my own, but the incalculable value of going through this in the midst of a loving community is clear.

As I told Judi on Friday night, ever since I was 17, it has been my husband who has carried me through all the hardest times of my life. I am so grateful he doesn't have to do it alone any more.


  1. Susan- I was moved to tears reading your blog. My deepest sympathy to you on the loss of your father. Sorry I wasn't able to make it to your home for the Shiva Minyan, but my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family during this difficult time. I love that you've been embraced by your Rodef Sholom family, and will continue to be over the coming months. Take good care, Eileen Levy

  2. Such a complicated time. HaMakom yenachem...

  3. oy. you poor baby. it's such a hard time. reading about it for you makes me remember what it was like for me. it's feels so heavy.

    but you know us, we are good at lifting.

  4. May your father's memory come to be for an abiding blessing.

  5. Susan,

    I had no idea you were going through such times. It's a comfort to know that you are surrounded by so much love and support.

    Beautiful inspiring writing as always. Sending you love and hugs from both of us.

    I'm only an email away if you need me!

  6. When my father died, and a few years later my mother passed away, I remember it as being a very difficult time and little things can set you off. May you find comfort in your memories.