I lost my father last year and still feel so confused when it comes to Jewish thoughts on the after life and dealing with something so confusing. How is loss approached from the mourner, and what are your thoughts on after life?
I used to think of myself as a pretty sassy mourner. Knew all the best schmears for sitting shiva. How to clean out photo boxes and dead parents’ closets without dissolving into a gefilte-flavored puddle. (Hint: wine in a box.) But your question really stumped me. I’m so sorry for your heartache, CH. I’m so sorry the father you loved is no longer here. And I’ll just come out and say it: I don’t know where he is.
CH, I hate to answer a question with a question, but what do you want to come after life?
Does it comfort you to envision your father starting over? Does it soothe you to see a solid outline or shape to his next identity? A fresh new body with tiny mewing lips and a slimy umbilical cord? A train conductor, lion tamer, or butterfly who inexplicably lands on your shoulder from time to time? Or maybe it’s more of a feeling he inhabits. A breeze or piece of music. What would make you feel better about this gaping hole? How do you want him to exist now that his body is gone?
I mean that sincerely, dear CH.
For me, it’s tricky. I lost my daddy young and spent too many years as a child trying to pin down exactly where and how he would live on. I thought I could conjure him or protect him by singing his favorite songs and kissing his empty shirtsleeves every night. I prayed for him over and over again, whispering my love and devotion until I was breathless. It was my job to keep him on earth, reincarnated in a jazz riff or a bottle of cocktail onions. I was frantic and scared and every day I felt like I was losing him all over again. Every day slipping away because I didn’t sing loud enough or love him hard enough.
When my mom died years later, I was just as clueless. I carted around her last-day-on-earth LeSportsac pocketbook, trying to analyze its contents. I unfolded every Thai take-out receipt, sniffed her Velamints, counted and recounted her crumpled tissues, paperclips, and loose change. I wanted to know why my mom was here one minute, ordering spring rolls and honking her nose, and then somehow–impossibly–exhaling everything she ever had or was. I needed to know her forwarding address. I even paid for some online handwriting analysis wizard to look at one of my mom’s to-do lists and interpret her loopy script.
(The wizard said Mom was creative, yet secretive. A great planner, with a tinge of surprise. Thanks for nothing, Wiz.)
Incidentally–or cosmically, depending on which color glasses you’re wearing–my 4-year-old said this today after his little brother wandered too close to the street:
“Don’t do that because then you’ll get smushed and if you get smushed you’ll get dead and if you get dead Mommy will have to make another one of you.” I don’t believe in carbon copy reincarnation, no matter how convenient that sounds.
CH, I looked up a few things for you, because I honestly didn’t know what the “Jewish” outlook was, and I wanted to get you the proper info. It does say pretty explicitly in the Book of Daniel (12:2) that, “many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake.” I personally have never heard a sermon about someone being physically resurrected, so then I bugged a few rabbis I respect very much.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel says:
Prayers such as Eil Maleh Rachamim make clear the Jewish understanding that we are more than physical, biological processes. There is something more to us, something intangible… a life force or, to use religious terminology, a soul. What happens to that life energy/soul after the death of the body is beyond our comprehension. Our prayers assume there is something but do not presume to know the nature or form it takes.
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz of Prospect Heights Shul, and Director of the Lindenbaum Center for Halakhic Studies says:
One thing is certain, the impetus for these discussions in the tradition is to provide comfort for the bereaved and let them know that their deceased loved ones still continue to live even after they passed on. Whether that means physically, metaphysically, or just that their spirit lives on, that’s up for debate.
I admire a rabbi who can say we just don’t know.
Honestly, I’ve had more crushes on rabbis than I’d like to admit, but that’s for another time. What I love about these wise men’s answers is the acceptance of unknowing.
Human brains are pretty limited. No offense. But we can’t possibly know what happens next. This is why a glob of mushed up fish can actually have the right idea–just floating without too many grand expectations. I think even when we have two feet to stand on, we’re still on a wildly spinning planet, hurtling through a galaxy called What if…?
I don’t want you to keep searching and straining for an answer, CH. I believe your dad is here, in your question. In your confusion. And in our connection.
With love and schmaltz,
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