Debra Ruder Communications

Writing that matters

Turning tragedy into tribute

When you lose someone you adore, you need time to grieve –- to work through feelings of shock, sadness, anger, fear, loneliness, and yearning. Mourning involves readjusting to life without your loved one –- as someone said to me recently, rebuilding your life around a gaping hole.

Developing rituals to celebrate a person’s life can help with grieving. For example, Saul’s wife of 40 years, Barbara, drowned while in Israel years ago, and although he had no chance to say goodbye, Saul found a meaningful way to honor her memory and devotion to learning.

Barbara had spent six months in Israel, doing what she loved most: studying ancient Jewish texts and doting on her grandchildren. Eager to explore the Holy Land, she suggested that she and Saul, a professor who had been teaching in the United States, visit Northern Israel with a group sponsored by an environmental organization. The excursion included several parents and many children.

As Saul recalled to me, “We drove to the site where the hike was to begin and dropped off the children and four adults, including Barbara. The guide gave permission for the children to enter the Dan River. The other drivers and I drove to the place where the hike would end, parked our cars, and returned together.

“When we arrived, Barbara was missing. It turned out that while the water seemed calm at the bank of the river, a short way out it was turbulent. A child of about 10 had entered the river and went out too far. When he began to scream, Barbara went in after him. Both were caught up in the current, but the boy grabbed an overhanging branch and saved himself. Barbara was dragged under and drowned.

“Barbara gave of herself throughout her life, and this extended to her final act,” Saul told me. “I remember praying for her to be alive, but it was not to be. I guess she was needed on high. Losing her in a second without the chance to say goodbye is, in its own way, as terrible as watching someone you love waste away. She was my best friend, my teacher, my soul mate.”

To honor his late wife, Saul launched an annual study evening in Jerusalem in the late 1990s. Held on the anniversary of her death, the event brings together members of different Jewish movements who gather on a rotating basis in each other’s synagogues for a keynote lecture and classes. Many of the attendees come because they knew Barbara.

Building bridges between people who might not normally mix “very much fits Barbara’s personality and her ability to work comfortably with many different groups,” Saul said. “She was a very special human being.

“The masses of people who attended Barbara’s funeral [and mourning period] offered tangible evidence of what she achieved in her lifetime,” he reflected. “I still encounter people who tell me about the gifts of time and energy that she gave them. It is fitting that, at least once a year, Jews with different commitments come together to remember Barbara and to study –- which was one of her greatest pleasures.”

Consider this …
You can honor someone by carrying on their work.
Celebrating someone’s life with an annual event is another way of saying goodbye.