I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with a colleague/mom from my synagogue who was looking for some work advice about starting her own consulting business. As so often happens when I meet someone new with whom I share interests, we clicked, and our conversation quickly moved from professional overture to personal sharing.
We talked about our children, and their bar and bat mitzvahs. We talked about what it means to be a working mom. We talked about how even though she has been home with her children for a number of years, she has been doing many other things, including becoming a black belt in tae kwan do and training to become a teacher of that art.
And eventually, because we were sharing some very emotional, personal experiences about losing our parents, I told her about Ari, our infant son, who died almost 14 years ago.
Of course, this led to tears and hugs and for me, a bodily reminder of those days, right after his birth, when all that mattered was his little life. I told my new friend that being a member of Adat Shalom was one of the things that helped us through the sadness and the pain. Our synagogue is our home, and our community there supported us in unimaginable ways.
And I told her that if she asked anyone today who was a member of Adat Shalom 14 years ago if they remembered our family’s story, they would. And then it struck me – the incredible, enormous power of collective memory.
Every year, on the anniversary of his death, when our son’s name is read aloud for kaddish (the Jewish prayer for mourners), you can feel a palpable trembling in the sanctuary. Those who know remember. Those who don’t know are shocked. Even the clergy, who were with us every step of the way but who are usually so strong and have had to minister to so many sad, tragic stories over the years, will stumble over their words on the bimah and reveal the enormity of their own connection to the story of our lives.
It remains a marking point for us and for so many who know us. And the power of remembering together, once a year, is a wondrous and comforting thing for me and my husband.
A few weeks ago I was reminded of the sad story of a colleague and friend from my broader community whose young son died quite suddenly a year ago. I found out it was the anniversary of his death through Facebook, a public forum for so many life events today, most of them, thankfully, happy.
She posted on the anniversary of his death, and thanked her close community for being there for her and supporting her through the celebration of his life. As I scrolled through the many loving comments, I recognized that here too, collective memory provided strong and important sustenance for her journey of grief. Although she and I are not close, and I wasn’t a part of her immediate community of mourners, I felt connected to her and appreciated the opportunity to stop and think about her story.
Several weeks ago, the New York Times column, “This Life” featured an essay about mourning in a digital age. The author wrote about how, in a relatively short span of time, many of his friends recently had experienced loss, and he described how these losses were communicated, shared and handled.
Although the author was not part of a religious community, he and his friends, in some cases, put together informal, “secular shivahs” for the people experiencing the loss. In Judaism, shivah is the seven-day mourning period after the burial of a loved one, during which the mourner is supposed to stay in his or her home, and the community will come to visit, share, offer food and comfort and allow the mourner to take the lead in talking about the person who has died.
The secular shivahs, as described in the essay, served a similar purpose. The author writes about the etiquette of responding to a death that one hears about on Facebook, and how, although it’s a helpful medium for getting the word out quickly and efficiently to a large group of people, in the end, reaching out personally is the most important and loving way you can let the mourner know you are thinking about them. I know that this was true for one of my closest friends who experienced the untimely loss of her mother this past year.
Her mother had lived in another country, and it was challenging enough for my friend to keep shuttling back and forth in the last months of her mother's life while trying to work and take care of her family on this side of the ocean. In the end, when her mother succumbed to cancer, it was particularly helpful for my friend to be able to use social media to let those who were not in daily contact with her hear the news quickly and efficiently. And I know that she felt the love in cyberspace, and deeply appreciated having the chance to share her sadness with those who lived scattered in different places. It certainly did not replace the need to have her family and local BFFS surround her and help her through her shiva; but it was a sweet and wondrous thing to have comfort coming in from all over the globe.
On the opposite end of the life cycle spectrum, the great and wonderful news of babies being born have come my way via electronic communication in recent weeks. I was knocked off my feet when a young friend had her happy baby announcement, complete with a picture, sitting in my email box within four hours of her giving birth. And when my stepsister’s baby was born the following day, my stepmom sent me a picture of her holding the baby within the first hour.
I was able to enjoy the good and happy news quickly and easily, and appreciate the joy that both families were experiencing almost simultaneously. It made me think about what I would have done if, 14 years ago, we had the ability to send out our sad news in a similar way.
As the brave new world of online communications and social media become more and more a part of our everyday world, it is clear that most of us will be sharing personal news in a very public way from now on. There is much to be heralded about this; it allows for a wide circle of friends, family and others to share the intimate moments of our lives, even from far away.
But I wouldn’t want to exchange the very personal sharing of stories, be they happy or grief-filled, for an email blast. I continue to crave the support and love and physicality that comes from being in the same room with people who knew me when I was experiencing the saddest moment of my life, and intoning an ancient, ritual prayer together that offers me comfort and a reason to keep going.
The collective memory in our community of my personal experience is an important piece of my ongoing healing and recovery, and it allows me to open up and let in all the wonders of friendship, family and life.
Photo by Adam Foster/Codefor via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/paperpariah/3176781913/