By Elissa Felder
Twenty-six years ago a group of my friends gathered to wash the body of my little baby that had died that same day during open-heart surgery. His death was a shock of the most traumatic proportions. It was an experience of loss I had never encountered with this level of magnitude. It was like slamming into a brick wall. The brick wall marked the end of the road with no more road ahead.
Life felt like it had ended when my little sweet baby Sam died. I had no direction; no desire to keep living. My life for the previous six months of his life had revolved around his needs and schedule. As any good mother of a newborn, I was tired yet happy.
Motherhood ended in an instant when the news broke that Sam had a heart that was unable to be fixed. We would not see him again ever. A dear friend, a young man at the time, had the thought to be with us in the hospital that day; to wait as Sam underwent his “life-saving” surgery.
When the outcome was so radically, unbelievably different than what we could ever have anticipated he was there to catch us and gently allow us the space to scream deep existential, guttural cries of pain; cries that came from deep inside, from that place where life is supposed to be generated.
That place wasn’t green and fertile – it was dark, scary and “bad.” The screams came from that unexplored place. They were deep, foreign, unfamiliar sounds.
Our friend made phone calls, arranged the funeral and paved the way for the next few moments, hours, days…
That night my friends who had known Sam in life washed his little body and prepared him for burial. In Jewish tradition a body is washed and clothed in white cotton shrouds. The body is placed into the ground; like a seed planted in the earth for the future time when it will resprout and rejoin with its soul in the future.
This traditional practice is called a “tahara” and is usually performed by an established chevra kadisha (burial society). This time my friends, with love and respect and, I imagine, many tears, bathed him for his “planting” the next day.
How I screamed that day and many days thereafter. At the height of that pain came an understanding that we don’t run our lives. We are not in control of life or death. Loss and suffering is real and it really, really hurts. It drains all of your energy and it takes away a lot of your desire to live.
But at some point you have to choose to get up and to take the pain with you; to hold it inside; to integrate it with every fiber of your being and let it define you. Life is never the same. You are now carrying something larger and heavier than you want to bear.
Somehow there is a way to keep moving on. Some hope that life is still worth living
Maybe there will be other children one day?
Maybe I can still live a meaningful and fulfilling life?
The goal of life is not to be happy anyhow. So just give up on that one. There will be happy moments but that’s not the goal.
In that becoming you get born again into a new person with this trauma embedded inside of you.
One thing I have done post-Sam is wash Jewish women for burial. So grateful am I for the kind act those ladies did for him. I imagine that they did not want to go to the funeral home that night but they felt a duty; a desire to wash him even though it was really hard and unpleasant.
For decades I with two other women regularly go to our local funeral homes to wash and “purify” the women in our care. We dress them in shrouds and place them lovingly in coffins ready for their burials the next day.
Every now and then we wash people we know: our friends’ mothers or sisters or daughters; sometimes even our friends.
A few months ago I washed my own granddaughter. How?
with tears freely flowing down my face
with a direct confrontation with a reality that was almost too much to bear
with courage that this was a good thing for me to do
with a desire to give to my daughter
with an understanding that there is something sacred about a grandmother washing her little granddaughter
with a broken heart
Washing and preparing a Jewish person for burial is holy work. It connects us to God. It connects us to the future. It says there is more to life than this world.
Our body is holy and in life it houses the soul. The soul is the breath of God.
Death starts the process whereby the soul disconnects from the body. The body must be returned to the dust from where it came. Death of a child is a horrifically painful event. The Jewish traditional burial makes death holy and part of something bigger than the individual
Death allows us to see our lives as being part of a journey.
Life is like a narrow bridge; we come from somewhere and we go somewhere.
For each one of us that bridge is of different lengths, for some it is very short and for others it is many years.
What do we do on that bridge and what effect do we make so that the world is forever different because we were in it?
So many years ago an encounter with death taught me amongst other things the importance of the chevra kadisha. From the kindness of others I learned about the mitzvah of caring for and accompanying the dead. What was so lovingly done for our son, Sam opened my eyes at a young age to a mitzvah that I could do. Washing each woman in our care is a loving, spiritual, life-affirming, beautiful and meaningful act.
Contact Elissa at firstname.lastname@example.org.