“Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falls; for he has no other to help him up.” – Ecclesiastes 4:10
December 1996: Our family gathers in San Jose, California. We spend the day at my sister’s home waiting for her to give birth to her first son, Ari. He finally arrives in the evening. We head to the hospital to celebrate and return to her home for a festive dinner when my brother pulls me aside. “Jay died this morning. The funeral is tomorrow. I’m so sorry, Daniel.”
I make flight reservations with TWA and a few hours later I am on a red-eye from San Francisco through St. Louis to Washington-Dulles. At the funeral, Jay’s coffin is lowered into the grave, kaddish (the Jewish memorial prayer) is said, family and then friends are invited to put dirt on the coffin. I approach and the rabbi hands me – an athlete in the prime of my youth – a small spade with some dirt and explains that placing dirt in the grave is a way of “symbolically helping with the burial.” I take the spade and meekly turn it over. A little dirt falls in.
A small car is waiting. I sit in the back right-hand seat; there are four of us, healthy young guys. We are quiet and the car idles. Soft earth rests beneath the tires. We wait for a line of cars to creep forward, away from the graves. I turn and look through the rear-view window.
A few people mill around the tent where the family sat, while three men dressed in dark green uniforms casually shovel earth into Jay’s fresh, open grave. An impulse rises in me – one I remember to this day with regret, un-acted upon. I want to open the car door, walk over, and take a shovel, move the professionals aside, and do it all myself. I want Jay to be buried by people who knew and loved him, not people paid to do it.
Sitting in the car, I realize I don’t want a damn symbol. I want the thing itself, not just a spade. I want to dig deep into the mound of earth, lift a full shovel, and strain to swing it over to the grave. Now, I yearn to get out of the car, move the gravediggers aside and dirty my shoes, to breathe hard and sweat through my shirt. I want to dump earth onto his coffin and fill the space where he will rest forever, like tucking in a child at night. That is what one does for a brother. That is what we do for those we love. But it is only a thought in my mind. The car creeps forward, and the four of us drive away in silence across the winding streets of Northern Virginia.
We return to Jay’s mom’s home. His parents got divorced in high school. Like most kids, Jay was bitter, and happy for them too, that they should be happy. I remember walking the suburban neighborhood streets with him, talking it through, thinking that perhaps Jay’s battle with leukemia had kept them together and driven them apart; that the years of illness and sadness, of treatments and watching your child struggle and suffer, were finally too much. People gather in the living room. I remember the house, but the room is unfamiliar. Jay and I would play pinball or wrestle in his basement. We would play basketball in his driveway. We never spent any time in the living room.
The Shiva House
I know a little about how Jews mourn. I am 25 years old and three of my four grandparents are already dead. Grandpa Sam was the official photographer for the Oakland Raiders and a semi-pro golfer. I remember driving in the front seat of his big brown Cadillac and chasing after balls while he played a round of golf. When Grandpa Sam died, I was eight. My parents left me in Potomac and flew to California for a week. I stayed with a family that had a house with a long driveway and I learned to ride a bike.
Grandpa Arthur fought in World War One and could calculate his grocery bill to within a few cents even though he never went to college. He wore an orange sweater jacket and I thought he looked dignified when he walked with a cane. When my grandpa Arthur died, I was eleven. Our family used to drive four hours north to their home in Queens, New York to visit. I remember returning from the funeral to my grandmother’s musty apartment and crying inconsolably. My mom was surprised at how strongly I was reacting to the loss, until I explained that in the commercial for Country Time Lemonade there was always a grandpa who sat on the porch and drank Country Time with his grandson, but now I didn’t have any grandpas anymore.
My grandma Beatrice was a classical pianist and taught hundreds of people to play the piano. I wasn’t her best student, though she tried. By the time I saw her play piano, arthritis made her hands clumsy and stiff, yearning but unable to produce music now locked within. Shortly after my bar mitzvah, Grandma Beatrice got sick during a visit to our home in Maryland. When the decision was made to take her off the ventilator, they thought she would die in minutes. But my older sister – now a doctor, then only 17 years old – sat next to her hospital bed, held her hand, and coached her to live: “Breathe, Grandma, breathe. You can do it!” She lived a few days more instead of a few hours; but then she died. I was 13 years old. After that, we didn’t travel to New York anymore.
We cling to an illusion of safety. We try to protect ourselves by believing death happens according to a schedule. When we are young and a grandparent dies, we tell ourselves, “Death happens to people who are old. I am young so I am okay.” Jay’s death took away from me the luxury of illusion. Death has its own schedule.
I learned about shiva from my grandparents’ deaths. Shiva is a seven-day period of mourning beginning after a funeral. Mourners aren’t supposed to leave the house, bathe, shave, have sex, or drink alcoholic beverages. The community makes prayer services, brings meals and visits the mourners’ home. Too often, people do not know what to do or say, so they avoid coming altogether, or they say things that are more hurtful than helpful. Jewish tradition teaches we should enter the home, sit quietly, and let the mourner begin the conversation. But many people are scared of silence, so they talk instead.
I also learned that the only people who are required to “sit” shiva are family. The Jewish legal tradition defines a mourner as one of seven relatives: mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, or spouse. It is a bit strange, but being obligated to do something in Judaism matters more than doing it because you want to. So if you’re not required to mourn by Jewish tradition – for example, a friend is not required to mourn – it’s like your mourning matters less. A friend’s job is to provide comfort, not receive it.
So, sitting in Jay’s living room, I feel it is my and my friends’ responsibility to comfort Jay’s younger brother, mom, and dad – his family. I feel this way not because of anything Jay’s family said to me, but because it is what I’ve been told is Jewish tradition. I am sad and bewildered. But in light of that tradition, those feelings strike me as selfish. I don’t sit and cry; I help with the food instead. I speak about Jay when other people share stories. Later that afternoon, the meal concludes, the service ends. I hug Jay’s family and spend some time with my friends outside the house.
As “just” a friend and not a family member, Jewish tradition seems not to allow for my sadness and grief, so I say goodbye, drive back to the airport and try to move on. As I look out the airplane window on the flight across the country, I need someone who understands what it is to lose a friend at a young age. I need someone who can tell me I am not alone. But I am.
This is not the book I planned to write; it is the one I needed to write. It is for the twenty-five year-old me who drove away from Jay’s grave not knowing how to bury him, who helped Jay’s family but did not know how to help myself; did not know that the Jewish tradition could in fact support me in my grief. It is for those who have made the journey to, and back from, the funeral of a friend, but struggled with the return to life.
Daniel Greyber is the rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in Durham, North Carolina. He holds a Masters in Speech and Communications Studies from Northwestern University and was ordained in 2002 at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University where received the Henry Fisher Award for outstanding achievement in Jewish Studies. Rabbi Greyber grew up in Potomac, Maryland and spent the first 21 years of his life focused competitive swimming. A gold medalist and Captain of the U.S. Swimming Team at the 1993 World Maccabiah Games, Rabbi Greyber recently served as USA Team Rabbi at the 2013 World Maccabiah Games.
“A dangerous prayer,” an op-ed by Rabbi Greyber, can be found here.