Daniel Mutlu | September 21, 2018
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My wife’s grandmother, Shermalee, was a great artist. She was a painter and was particularly known for her western sculpture, but because of the workload of the family business, and then her recent illness, she hadn’t engaged in them in a while. Knowing that returning to art would be therapeutic for her, one of her sons built her a beautiful art studio, complete with a tin roof and a great view of the pasture. However, by the time the studio was finally finished, Shermalee’s health had declined too much for it to be of any use to her. Instead, each season that passed brought to her more confusion, loss of memory, and an increasing inability to care for herself.
Having seven caring children around kept Shermalee alive and loved. Each day during those final five years, her four girls and three boys put in a remarkable amount of energy to keep her going and well taken care of. Though every day brought new challenges and problems to solve, the spirit with which the children took care of her never seemed to run out. It was an energy that could have only come from a deep, shared love of their mom and for each other.
This past summer, Shermalee passed away, and all of a sudden, the steady care and attentiveness of the past 5 years fell out of focus. Shermalee’s children faced the same question that we face when we are left abruptly without our loved ones. Where does all the love and energy that was once given to our loved ones now go? How do we express our appreciation and care for someone so important to us, now that they are gone? The pain of questions like these hits all of us quickly and inevitably, and time and reflection on their own don’t necessarily provide the answers we need.
When we lose someone we love, it is so hard to find a focus for the experience we shared together, and we might feel that there is no outlet now for our feelings–even feelings of frustration and anger–now that they are gone.
But our tradition shows us what do to. It says, start with remembrance, but don’t end there. Act, especially so as to honor those who came before us. In particular we are taught, acts of love, something positive in this world, something the departed can no longer do; these are the things that not only give us a focus for the love that we shared with them, but doing these things also honor those that came before us. We can continue to do the things that they loved. We can contribute to causes they cared about. We can still do the things that we enjoyed with them when they were here. This is part of their legacy.
There is a beautiful teaching by Rabbi Joseph Hertz, he says, “When many a person dies, a death notice appears in the Press. In reality, it is a life notice; because but for it, the world would never have known that that person had been alive. Only one who has been a force for human goodness and abides in hearts and souls made better by their presence during one’s pilgrimage on earth can be said to have lived, only such a one is heir to immortality”
The immortality that Rabbi Hertz speaks of is what we now make of their legacy. We know that the pain of our loss will never go away completely, but our actions in this world can heal us. Our actions can also make the name and memory of our loved ones a blessing, so that they can continue to have an impact right here with us.
Even if our relationships were strained with those we loved, we still can act. We can still do what our tradition calls honoring and redeeming the departed. All the more so then can our actions in someone’s memory heal a broken relationship as well as honor and exalt the good that was there. We do all of this with the same love that we may have shared with them; the same care and spirit that we may have offered them; the same affection that we may still hold for them.
This past summer, as Shermalee’s children looked at each other, for the first time now without their mom, her daughters decided that they would use the art studio. They would continue the tradition of art in their family by doing something that their mom so loved. This would be part of the beautiful legacy of their mom. They would do it both to heal themselves but especially to uplift their mom’s memory and good name, and they would do it with the same care, energy, spirit and the love that would move with them into a different space.
Let us all find such healing after our loss. Let us all amplify the good names and memories of our loved ones, so that they can truly continue to be blessings.
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