We know death is coming — for all of us — so why does it make us so sad when somebody dies?
Faith & Values |
It was a question that I once thought had an obvious answer. But then I heard the news about Dave.
The question is simply this: Why really do we grieve the deaths of our loved ones? After all, we know that everyone will die eventually. For us humans, life is a terminal condition, and we know that at least biologically, nobody has ever come out of it alive. We know death is coming, so why does it make us so sad?
There are, of course, many reasons. Our loved ones play important roles in our daily lives, and their deaths leave gaping holes. Often, we want more time with them — more joy, more laughter, more healing — and death makes those hopes impossible to fulfill. We remember our good times with the deceased, knowing that they are now over; memories can be crushing.
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But none of that applies to Dave.
Dave was my best friend in junior-high school. We were inseparable: We rode our bikes together, we hung around the snack table at school dances together, we had sleepovers and stayed up late reading Mad Magazine.
But during high school we began drifting apart, and after graduation, we fell out of touch. I saw Dave 11 years ago at our 20th high-school reunion, and it was great to reconnect. We agreed to stay in contact, but we didn’t. I hoped to see him again at our 30th reunion last fall, but he wasn’t there.
A few weeks later, the announcement came out on Facebook. Dave had died. The funeral would be private. No further information was available.
Shocked, I contacted Dave’s family. Dave had struggled with depression for many years, they told me. They hoped he was at peace.
For days, I could think of little else. Dave, my buddy from junior-high school was dead? How could that be?
As my grief dragged on, I found myself wondering why it was hitting me so hard. I could understand being a little sad — of course the news of his death was tragic. But I’d hardly spoken with Dave in more than three decades. Practically speaking, his death didn’t leave a hole in my life, nor did it deprive me of any hopes for the future. So why was I so torn apart?
The memories continued: our bike rides, our shared fear of girls holding us to the snack table at dances, our late-night marathons with Alfred E. Neuman and Spy vs. Spy. With Dave’s death, those memories were now mine, and mine alone.
And that’s when I realized what was happening. I realized that Dave and I had shared part of our lives with one another, and now that he is gone, nobody else in world remembers it. Only Dave could attest to those junior-high times; only he could recall what I shared with him. But now, nobody does. I realized that part of the reason I felt so sad was that a piece of me died with Dave — the piece of me that I had shared with him so many years ago.
We often think that we grieve because we cherish our memories of those we love. I suppose that’s true. But with Dave’s death I realized that we also grieve because death brings an end to other people’s memories of us.
Our friends know us as we once were; our spouses see elements of us that we otherwise keep hidden; our parents were there from the very beginning. Nobody else remembers us as they do, and when they die, so, too, do their memories of us.
To be remembered by another is to exist beyond the boundaries of self. To cease being remembered is to taste our mortality.
When recalling a loved one, it is customary for Jews to say “Zecher tzaddik livrachah,” a phrase usually translated, “May the memory of the righteous be a blessing.” But it could also mean, “the memory of the righteous is a blessing.”
And it’s true. There are people in the world who remember us who bear something of us in their minds and hearts, and we remember them, too.
Maybe sharing memory is what it means to love. What a magnificent blessing!
My friend Dave is gone, and so are the countless memories he gathered during his life. But we who knew Dave will always remember him, and to remember him is to allow him to exist beyond the boundaries of his self, too.
Zecher taddik livrachah. May Dave’s memory be a blessing. Forever.
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org