Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Transcending Private Loss

 When we lose a loved one we constantly need to feel his presence in our life, and at the same time we worry that with time we won’t remember everything about him. I know a widow whose urge to keep her husband near her was so strong that she chose to eternalize him in a life-size oil portrait. This is an example of a private way of remembrance; it emphasizes what was important to that bereaved woman at the time. Some people use the cemetery as a venue where they express their grief, and realize their wish to be close to their loved one. Thus they go there often, talk to the deceased and tend the grounds-- cleaning and planting flowers.

While this way of remembering helps the bereaved to stay close to her loved one (and  keeps the grave beautiful), it does not transcend personal sorrow. But if, for example, she was to use that urge to tend the grounds and grow, in another plot of land, herbs and vegetables for everyone to enjoy, then the remembrance becomes public. It could benefit the community and at the same time commemorate the private person--the one that she has lost.

Some families choose a more public way of remembrance: they donate money to an institute, or to a cause which reflects the beliefs of the deceased, other give away a sum of money to start a scholarship fund. These are worthy deeds and by doing them the family members feel that, in some way, they continue the life-work of their loved ones.

To my mind the disadvantage here is that the connection between the giver and the receiver is limited, we often don’t really know what the money is used for, and in the case of the scholarship this act benefits only a few.

My late husband Tzvi was a professor in Tel Aviv University and the founder of a large professional organization in Israel. In his last months, when we talked about his legacy he said that he didn't wish  us to do anything. Like many people in his situation, he argued that it was enough that we, his family, remembered him, and that he stayed alive in our hearts. So we respected his wish.

But when I got an invitation from that organization to an annual conference in his honor, I felt that we were given our plot of land.  It has been five years since Tzvi's passing and I and my daughters still miss him very much. We grieve our loss privately, but in this case, his students and colleagues chose to commemorate him through an active way of learning, one which benefits his community. By doing so the gain has been extended to many.

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