My father, alav hahalom, died shortly before Passover in 2011. When we learn that a close relative has died, but the person has not yet been buried, we are called an onen, or “someone in between.” Mourning doesn’t officially start until our loved one is buried, so we are in between the time when the person was alive and the time when mourning begins.
One of the reasons we Jews bury our dead as soon as is reasonably possible is because we know it’s important to start mourning. Acknowledgement of the death, caring for the dead person with respect, and a speedy burial are all part of this process. Life cannot continue for the living until their beloved dead are properly cared for.
Unfortunately for me, at the time of his death, my father was married to a woman who isn’t Jewish. She doesn’t know about our traditions, and felt no need to conform to them. Shortly after my father died, she left town to be with two of her daughters, saying she would deal with my father’s arrangements after she returned.
My father died on a Saturday morning. The following Friday night, I went to the synagogue, and the rabbi pulled me aside before services. “When is the funeral going to be?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“I’m sorry,” he responded.
“It sucks,” I told him.
“It sucks” is hardly an adequate description for what it feels like to know your father’s body is lying, alone, in a drawer in a morgue hundreds of miles away, unattended by a shomer, waiting for an undefined period of time before someone decides they’re ready to arrange for the burial.
This state of being “in between,” of my father being dead but not buried, was surreal. It was difficult for me to sleep, knowing he was not at rest. Time seemed to stretch out forever. Hours felt like days. When he was finally buried, twelve days after his death, it felt like a couple of months had passed. It was brutal.
All of this came up for me while I was watching the news about the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. According to a story on CNN, the family of Micayla Medek did not receive confirmation of her death until 19 hours after the shooting occurred. 19 hours.
I want to make it clear that this is not an indictment of any of the officials, first responders, investigators, or anyone else in Aurora during that awful time. They all had to set priorities, and, from all accounts, their actions were above reproach. They arrived on the scene within a couple of minutes, and they secured the theater. They got literally dozens of injured people the medical help they needed, and they even captured the suspect without any further violence. Those were the things that needed to happen first, and it took time. Then they turned to collecting evidence and identifying the dead, a grisly job if ever there was one.
My focus, rather, is on Micayla’s cousin Anita Busch, and the rest of Micayla’s family. Waiting for a loved one to be buried is one thing. But waiting to find out whether a loved one is alive or dead is quite another.
What must they have gone through during those 19 hours? I’m sure they held out hope the entire time that Micayla was still alive. They must have wanted to rush to her side at whatever hospital they imagined she might have been at. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to think your daughter or sister or cousin is lying in a hospital somewhere, possibly dying, and not be able to fly to her side.
But they weren’t able to do that, because they were in a terrible state of onen, of being “in between.” Their loved one was not between death and burial, she was between life and death, and her family had no way to know whether to hold hope or to mourn.
If hours can feel like days while waiting for my father to be buried, how slow must time have been for this family, as they frantically tried to find out Micayla’s fate? How surreal must it have been for them? How horrific and exhausting? My heart goes out to them, and to all the families, friends, first responders, and others who have suffered and are suffering due to this tragedy.
Now, at least, the victims have been identified, so the survivors, the families and friends, and the others involved can begin to heal.
My handy Webster’s dictionary defines “aurora” as, “A luminous phenomenon of streamers or arches of light appearing in the upper atmosphere…” May Micayla’s soul, and those of the others who died that night, be a light over Aurora during this time. May their memories ever be a blessing.