Sitting in the Valley of Tears

Sitting in the Valley of Tears

Shabbat evening, Friday, October 26, 2018.  I am sitting in the stone-floored lobby of my synagogue, afloat in music, feeling my week’s tension being carried away on a wave.

Leonard Cohen’s melody for “Hallelujah” is being transformed and elevated as we fill it with the words of “Lecha Dodi,” welcoming the Shabbat Queen.  I remember the exact moment at which I felt the release, the peace of letting go of everything that vexed me:

Rav lach shevet b’emek habacha – “You have dwelled too long in the valley of tears.”

I even thought to myself, “What a beautiful, healing mantra!  I will write next week’s blog about letting go of sorrow, using this verse as my jumping off point.”

Sixteen hours later our world was shattered.

Now we’ve reached the end of the sheloshim, the thirty-day mourning period observed by most mourners in Jewish tradition, except for those who are mourning the loss of a parent.

Rav lanu shevet b’emek habacha?  Have we dwelled long enough in the valley of tears?

Long enough?  When there are still flowers arriving on the lawn at Tree of Life?  When the window of Starbucks, and nearly every other business, still bears a stark visual reminder of how wounded we all are?  When I can still see the smiling faces of the victims from the weekend before the terrorist attack and think, “No, that’s the real memory; I’m going to wake from this nightmare any moment.”

In the next verse of “Lecha Dodi,” the poet sings, “Arise from the dust and shake it off,” but this dust will not be shaken off.  Not yet.

How long is long enough?  Judaism prescribes time frames – the grief-stricken period of aninut, before the burial, where comforting the mourner is actually prohibited (or impossible – see “Three Healers Who Listen – Jerry”); the seven days of shiva, immediately after the funeral; the sheloshim, the first month; and the shana, the full year (limited to eleven months, really) for a person mourning a parent.  Each transition is supposed to lighten the load a little.  Is it long enough?

Who can tell me how long is enough?  My grandmother died at ninety-two.  I was at work when I got the news and forced myself through three more days because my son was having surgery that week, then tried to go back again following the surgery, recovery and funeral.  My supervisor took one look at my face and told me not to come back the next day.  That was not long enough.

I’m not alone – there is a rush to normalize in our society that doesn’t allow people to grieve.  Bereavement policies are restrictive and our attitude toward death and loss is one of such denial that it seems like all of America screams, “You have dwelled too long in the valley of tears” even before the grave is filled in.

My colleagues are to blame as well.  The DSM-V, the diagnostic bible of psychiatry, now classifies a person as having major depressive disorder if he has the symptoms of that disorder even two weeks after the death of a loved one.  Apparently two weeks is “long enough.”

But is there such a thing as too long?  When I am trying to help someone who has suffered so long after a loss or trauma that I feel like the king’s horses and king’s men working on Humpty Dumpty?  What about then?

Even then.  Even then.  Where is it written what the right amount of time is to recover from childhood abuse?  When did God decree the proper length of time to mourn the death of a child?  How do we know we’ve grieved “enough” over the aftermath of a terrorist attack?

I do know that “never” is too long.  Someday there must be hope.  Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz composed “Lecha Dodi” to link the holy rest of Shabbat in the here and now with the hope of the Messiah, which he believed was close at hand.  He lived in the first generation after the end of the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, and like many in his time believed that God’s response to the Inquisition would be to send the Messiah.

The contemporary Jewish scholar and writer Erica Brown, in her book Happier Endings, calls this the “inspiration” phase of mourning.  Uncomfortable with the five stages of grief popularized by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Brown reformulates them into three different phases: denial, resignation, and inspiration.  Inspiration moves beyond Kubler-Ross’ final stage of acceptance to something more; it is finding a way to live meaningfully in the new reality created by a loss.  Fittingly, it was Erica Brown who spoke at the community shloshim observance in Pittsburgh this week (minutes 49-59 of the video), to help our community find a way to move meaningfully from this valley of tears we are in to a life beyond it – to the light of Chanukah.

Rightly so.  Nothing will ever make what happened on October 27th “acceptable,” just as nothing will ever make an abusive parent’s behavior or the death of one’s beloved child acceptable.  But the parents I have met who fund grief and loss training for pediatric residents at Children’s Hospital have found inspiration.  The graphic designers who came up with a heart broken by lines representing the Three Rivers and put a Magen David at the Point have found inspiration.  The pediatricians in my interest group debating how to reconcile one person’s legacy of abuse with another’s experience of being judged for her parenting as a person of color are finding inspiration.

I will sing “Lecha Dodi” in the same place again this week, and when I sing “Rav lach shevet…” I won’t think, “I’ve sat too long,” but rather, “How much longer?”  I will pray for inspiration.  I will lead a hundred people in lighting Chanukah candles at my book release event on December 2.  And the next time I am at work with someone still struggling to get out of their own valley of tears, I will remember that they don’t need me to tell them, “Long enough!”  They need help finding their inspiration.

I hope I have something to offer.

Graphic from the SoundCloud page of my friend Mark Perlin, where you can hear his version of Lecha Dodi that mixes the Leonard Cohen, the Max Lewandowski, and the Mark Perlin.

Dr. Jonathan Weinkle

Dr. Jonathan Weinkle is an experienced primary care physician seeking to fix our broken healthcare system by returning the focus to the relationship between human beings. His new book, Healing People, Not Patients, gathers together ancient wisdom, medical science, and the experiences of one doctor to draw a portrait of a partnership—a medical covenant—not just between doctor and patient, but also including receptionist, nurse, transporter, and radiology technician.

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