We all have our first experiences in mourning following a family member’s death. This is about mine and the text that helped me cope. (7 minute read)
“Your grandfather died this morning,” Dad’s voice came through my cellphone. He sighed, “Tell your mother you love her.”
I hung onto the word.
Should I feel sad?
I didn’t feel sad… If anything, I felt shocked.
My grandfather, Mortimer, had been in a slow decline for years. Parkinson’s and Dementia had robbed him of his mind and the ability to move and yet still he’d persisted. I just assumed he would continue to persist, his body pickling, sleeping in his chair in the house he’d bought over 30 years ago on the Jersey Shore overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. He slept day and night, his neck cocked almost 45 degrees as his body remained upright. “He’s just like a little baby,” my grandmother, Marcia, used to say, over and over. She said it with a mixture of resignation and a hint of disbelief at the fate of the man she’d loved for over sixty years. I don’t know if anyone ever considered that his decline would have an end point, though.
In my last memory of us together, I walked to my grandfather’s seat at the dinner table and put my arms around him. My lips scratched on his stubbled face. He awoke and turned slowly toward me, blinking his blue eyes to adjust to the bright kitchen lights.
“Am I dead?” he asked me gently, as if I were St. Peter at the pearly gates of Heaven.
I looked at him, astonished. He was mostly silent these days unless someone asked him how he was doing, and even then it often took two or three shouts to get his attention.
“No, Pop-Pop,” I said. “You’re not dead. You’re still alive.”
How could it be that this man, whose mind had been stolen from him, could still know that the end was coming? I suppose the recognition of mortality is baked deeper into us than even our own memories.
He returned to silence after I answered him. His icy blue eyes blinked again and then they closed. It was as if he were meditating, waiting for the end to come.
I flew in from Detroit for the funeral. Mom’s eyes, red from crying, met mine as I stepped out of the arrivals terminal. She flung her arms around me and hot tears melted into my shoulder. My grandfather was her role model, her friend, her closest confidant. They used to walk for hours together on the white beaches of the Jersey Shore, feet sinking into sand and salt water as the waves climbed up and retreated to the ocean. Now, nothing remained of their relationship besides her affection for him, untethered, and her still fresh memories. As we walked to the car, she grasped my hand tightly.
We drove out to the cemetery on a warmer-than-normal mid-November day in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The clouds obliged with the day’s mood, blocking out the sun and casting the skyline, billboards, cars, and my family’s faces in somber blue-grey hues. We shot down the interstate as I held Mom’s hand, caressing it over and over, feeling the vibrations from her sobs. She looked at me with her light blue eyes, eyes he’d passed to both of us.
The driver pulled off the freeway and the car slowed down, turning past an imposing rod-iron gate. The thick black pavement gave way to a dirt and gravel road and the car’s tires made a muffled crunching noise as we were bumped and jostled by the hill. Bare trees and gray tombstones surrounded us on all sides .
The grave site wasn’t a neat patch of grass like I expected, but an orange and brown gash in the earth. Ropes held the casket over the grave and it dangled in suspension like a morbid hammock. People nodded at each other as they stepped out of their cars, hugged, and grasped each other’s hands, all while suppressing the smiles they would have shown under more pleasant circumstances.
Rabbi Epstein, who presided over the funeral, brought us into a circle around the grave. He was a familiar face, stopping by the beach house every now and again to check in with my grandmother and ask, “How’s he doing, Marcia?” He knew the answer. Half of Rabbi Epstein’s congregants had a foot in the grave already; I imagine that’s why he seemed so comfortable in the setting of a funeral.
His baritone voice boomed against the backdrop of morose faces and loose sniffles. “Read with me please, from the text of Ecclesiastes,” he said.
“There is an appointed time for everything and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to be born, and a time to die; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
I mouthed the words, unable for some reason to conjure the will to speak. A wave of emotion crashed over me. This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered Ecclesiastes.
It had been 6-months prior when I mentioned to a friend, Joey, that my girlfriend had just broken up with me and that my supposed dream job in renewable energy felt pointless. I wasn’t usually one to share my emotions, especially challenging ones, but on that night, I felt lost.
“Ohhhh, you’re in that phase,” Joey chuckled nasally in response. As he laughed, his thin face expanded gently into a smile, and his large brown eyes wrinkled at the corners. His reaction made him seem decades older than me, a grizzled veteran on the other side of age-30. “Hey, it happens to the best of us, man,” he said.
I strained a smile.
“Have you ever heard of Ecclesiastes?” he offered.
“You should check it out.”
I didn’t trust it when people referred me to religious books. The last time it happened, a Christian person in North Carolina gave me a copy of the King James Bible with the hope that I would accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior.
Joey smiled again. “You just seem like someone who’d be into it.”
“Okay, I’ll check it out.”
I was looking for answers, after all, and didn’t know where to start. Religion was as good a place as anywhere else. What the hell? I pulled out my journal and jotted down, “Ecclesiastes.”
I printed out the text at my office the following Monday night, making sure everyone had already left so I wouldn’t feel guilty using the work printer for personal purposes. Still fresh from the heat of the printer, I began reading — the pages bathed in the fluorescent office light:
“Vanity! Vanity! All is Vanity. What do people gain from their labors at which they toil under the sun? One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever.”
I sighed, looking around at the empty cubicles, the silence punctuated only by the memories of today’s politics, infighting, and tension. The text resonated. I was tired of the grind, of the daily flow, of the coming and going, the igniting of my car’s engine, the mechanical clacking on keyboards, the endless chatter, each day passing into another day.
I continued reading the text a few days later, sprawled across my bed. On that Saturday morning, like many in the Detroit winter, the sun sat behind a suffocating blanket of clouds. Everything was cast in an impenetrable grayness. The wind blew, whistling through the cracks at the seams of my closed windows.
“The sun rises, and the sun sets – and glides back to where it rises. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full; To the place [from] which they flow, the streams flow back again. All such things are wearisome.”
The words of Ecclesiastes continued to resonate. I’d dedicated so much effort to fighting for environmental sustainability for the past decade, but on the macro-scale, nothing had changed. Deaf ears met the International Panel on Climate Change’s models of future catastrophe. Every successive year was the hottest on record but politicians and corporations still weren’t interested in cutting carbon emissions. More polar bears than ever seemed like they were swimming laps on Youtube, yet the fossil-fuel-laden status quo continued unabated.
“I found that all is futile and pursuit of wind.”
I felt comforted reading these bleak words. In the past, I’d felt cornered by the feeling of hopelessness, banishing it from my consciousness because it meant giving into failure. That led to nothing but misery. Inevitably, the feeling of hopelessness arose again. But with the help of Ecclesiastes, I felt peace for the first time. People had experienced hopelessness for thousands of years. I wasn’t the only one who had wrestled with the question of how to live with the world’s injustices and humanity’s shortcomings. Admitting this reality wasn’t giving in. It was just the truth. If there is such a thing as pure serenity, I felt it wash over me when I finished reading that day.
Rabbi Epstein continued the funeral liturgy from Ecclesiastes. “From dust we come, and to dust, we will return.”
Mom grasped my hand especially tight. I held it and put my other hand on her shoulder. All we had in that moment were those words. Their weight provided perspective. Mortimer’s death was inevitable. He was dust.
But the words weren’t just about him.
We were dust. As we mourned his death, the text reminded us that we also mourned the coming of our own. The tears flowed down our cheeks. There was something about them that completed an emotional arc, wet beads of humility, reckoning, and catharsis.
Rabbi Epstein closed the service. “And let us say, Amen.”
A word escaped from my trembling, salt-stained lips: “Amen.”
The cemetery staff began cranking a pair of handles, loosening the straps that held my grandfather’s casket above the ground. My siblings and I held Mom tight as the wood hit the bottom with a soft thud.
Rabbi Epstein gestured toward a few shovels plunged into a massive pile of dirt. “First, his wife,” he said. My grandmother picked up the shovel, lifted a small piece of soil from the pile and flipped it into the pit. “Next, his children.” Each of them dropped earth on top of the casket. “Spouses of the children.” My father and uncles grabbed shovels, which scraped and crunched as they stabbed into the pile of earth.
“His grandchildren.” My siblings and I each grabbed a shovel. For a few moments, all I could think about was the crunch and thud of shovel hitting dirt and piling onto casket. How terrible it was to cover someone in dirt when we spend our entire lives avoiding it, washing it out, knocking it off our shoes, perhaps to avoid the reality that we’ll spend eternity beneath it.
The casket was by now almost completely covered by dirt. The cemetery workers and one of my uncles took the final shift. As I watched them finish, smoothing out the top with a few pats, gratitude arose gently within me. Ecclesiastes had provided me with the wisdom I needed twice now. Who knew what other texts like these existed in the world’s ancient religious traditions? I didn’t know the answer, only that I had to continue searching.