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Chayei Sarah, Swimming and Mourning

In memory of Susan Sirkman
In honor of Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman

“And Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to cry for her…” (Genesis 23:2)

Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman, a colleague and friend, who recently lost his beloved wife Susan to cancer made a telling comment about mourning. He said, “Emotionally there are times when it just hits you like a wave. That’s what mourning is. It’s a wave. But you get back up. You catch your breath. And you recognize that you can still navigate the waters.”

I find myself pondering this image. I remain enamored of the ocean and its waves.

It occurs to me that the waves only knock you down if you stand at the water’s edge. If instead you plunge into the ocean and run into the waves you cannot get knocked down. You have to swim beyond the shoreline. There you will find a spot where the waves do not wash you off your feet but instead gently rock you.

To someone who is tentative about the ocean or about swimming this may seem counterintuitive. The temptation is to run from the beach and its waves. Who wants to get knocked down over and over again? The impulse is to discard all keepsakes and memorabilia. It hurts too much to look at our loved one’s things. The pain and loss can at times make it impossible to get up. It becomes inconceivable that you can ever enjoy the ocean again.

Swimming into the waves requires some effort. Discovering that spot where the waves caress you rather than overwhelm you requires strength.

The ocean is always moving. It is unpredictable. The waves change each and every day, each and every hour. That magical spot, somewhere out at sea is different with each passing day. How can it be found? How can it be held on to? How does one gather the courage to venture forward into the crashing surf? How does one master such swimming if it is never the same? Every loss is unique. Every day is different.

People offer clichés, they suggest that time heals. It does not. They say such words because they do not know what else to say. Here is what I have come to learn. Over time the mourner figures out where to place the remembrances. You discover how to move forward without your loved one and with only the blessing of memories and the gifts of the stories you shared.

Over time you discover that you are a stronger swimmer than you imagined and that the waves are perhaps no longer so intimidating.

You long to find that spot where memories gently rock you.

Each time the waves are different. Finding the strength to swim must be discovered anew, each and every day.

Yehudah Halevi, the medieval poet, who risked his life to travel from Spain to the land of Israel, speaks of the sea and its waves. He writes: “Let not your heart tremble in the heart of the sea… Now the sea and the sky are pure, glittering ornaments upon the night. The sea is the colour of the sky—they are two seas bound together. And between these two, my heart is a third sea, as the new waves of my praise surge on high.” (The Poet Imagines His Journey)

Time does not offer healing. The gaping hole will always remain. The loss cannot be replaced. It cannot be filled with something else.

There does, however, come a day when the waves no longer appear so frightening and the sea appears instead inviting. There comes a day when its caress is welcome and the cries and the tears no longer feel so debilitating. There comes a day when praise and gratitude begin to emerge once again.

There comes a day, perhaps, when one’s heart is filled with thanks for the years shared, however long or even however short, and words of gratitude begin to emerge from our lips.

“Then Abraham arose from beside his dead, and spoke…” (Genesis 23:3)