July 31, 2003
Widows, Widowers Seek Ways to Cope
When Esther Goshen-Gottstein's husband of 39 years died, she felt like her world had crumbled.
"The bottom had fallen out my life, as in an earthquake, when the ground on which one has stood firmly for years suddenly collapses," she writes in "Surviving Widowhood" (Gefen, 2002). "Would I have to wait for rescue workers to pull me out and put me back on my feet?"
Unfortunately, as Goshen-Gottstein made clear in her book, there is no road map for how to get back on your feet; no emotional recovery drug that can make it all OK. Most people must navigate on their own this desolate landscape of loss. Yet there are things that they can do that can make this experience at least bearable, if not easier: join a bereavement support group, turn to rabbis for religious guidance .
"Surviving Widowhood" is one of a number of Jewish books on dealing with loss. But what makes it unique is instead of citing hard-andfast-rules about how people should act when their spouses die, she walks them through her own experiences and, using her skills as a psychologist, is able to thoughtfully analyze her own and others' reactions to the gamut of emotions bought about by the experience of death.
For the author, dealing with the death of her husband Moshe -- a well-known academic in Israel and the winner of the Israel Prize -- was an ongoing process that continued long after the shiva (seven days of mourning).
The book is unflinchingly personal and she does not shy away from talking about the little things that his death affected, such as changing habits that had become second nature, like transitioning in speech from "we" to "I." The hardship in having no one to share the minutiae of life, she finds, is one of the most difficult things to deal with.
She also writes about the role that Judaism played in her emotional recovery. Goshen-Gottstein found the moratorium provided by the shiva "allowed me to express my grief uninhibitedly. What a relief it was not only to know what to do, but also how long you have to do it."
Yet, there are other philosophical aspects of Judaism that can help one deal with loss, said Rabbi Levi Meier, chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
"The major way that Jewish people cope is through real belief and religious imagination that the future good can already be experienced now," Meier said, referring to the feeling one has when one recovers emotionally from the loss. For those not spiritually evolved enough to see the silver lining in a horribly dismal rain cloud, Meier says that sitting shiva and reciting 'Kaddish' can ease the pain.
"The recitation of 'Kaddish' is like an incessant dialogue with the deceased, because when you say 'Kaddish' you are constantly thinking about the deceased, and they become more visible as a result," Meier said. "Also, the laws of mourning don't let you mourn by yourself. When you sit shiva, people come to visit, people come to the funeral and when you go to shul to say "Kaddish" you need a minyan. You need to mourn with a community, so you might feel existentially alone, but still connected to other people."
While it might be important to feel connected to the outside community, many people who are grieving feel the need to talk to others who are sharing their experiences. Many synagogues, such as Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Temple Isaiah on Pico Boulevard offer bereavement support groups where people can meet others who are going through the same thing. Typically therapists or trained counselors run these groups, and people usually attend them for one to two years.
"I think every single emotion comes into grief," said Fredda Wasserman the adult program director at Our House, a Woodland Hills organization that provides grief support services. "From sadness, guilt and anger, to joyful memories and sometimes relief. People usually don't know to expect all of that, and don't know that all of that is normal. Going to a bereavement support group provides people with a lot of long-term support. People often feel that they don't want to be a burden to someone else by having to share their feelings, but in these groups, they are talking to other people who know what they are feeling and what they need."
"Grief is not a psychiatric disorder," she continued. "It's a normal reaction to natural process, and people's feelings, emotions and responses can be normalized when they are with other people who are going through the same thing."
"All these things are cathartic." Meier added, "Ultimately, after you lose someone and you go through the process and do as much as you can, you actually come out of it stronger, with a greater sense of faith, a greater understanding of God and a greater understanding of life and of death."
For more information on bereavement support groups in Los Angeles County, visit the Jewish Bereavment Project's Web site at www.jewishbereavement.com.