“Better to Have Loved and Lost, than Never to Have Loved at All”
Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chayim, Bentleigh VIC
Yizkor 5782 – 2021
Thump. Thump. Thump. There is no sound more harrowing than the first three thuds of dirt echoing off the coffin of a loved one. The reality…the finality of death is inescapable. Try as we might to appease ourselves, to find a shred of comfort, in that moment, we are raw, open, vulnerable, exposed, overwhelmed with our sorrow, for we have had a piece of our heart removed, never to be returned.
Death is not something to be sugar-coated or glossed over; rather, death is to be confronted head-on. Denying the pain will not make it go away any faster. Imagine having a fall and experiencing intense pain as you notice a huge gash on your leg. You could ignore the pain and keep on moving, doing nothing differently, and hope all will come right eventually.
However, you risk infection and more serious injury if your wound is not tended to properly.
The same is true with the death of a loved one. Our loss leaves a deep wound that, if not tended to properly, can infiltrate our core, impeding our healing process. Our memories become bitter-sweet, for with the joy and warmth of the memory comes the sadness of our loss. Our Jewish tradition encourages us to accept and sit with our pain without becoming embittered or encumbered.
I recently had conversations with two separate people who had experienced more deaths this year than most people have had in their lifetime. One of them expressed immense honour for being able to be there for their loved ones in their final stages of life, feeling that they were able to give the love to their loved one which they had received. The other person expressed their anger, resentment, and outright rejection of the phrase “Better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,” for this person had no closure with their loved ones who had been taken too soon.
In the Song of Songs, it is written: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death” (8:6).
Love and death go hand in hand. We’re told that the pain we feel at death is a measure of the love we felt in life. Sometimes, the pain is so great, we’re numb to it – in shock, unable to process our grief. Sometimes, our pain is sporadic, providing both temporary respite from the pain and false hope that the pain is gone. Other times, our grief comes pouring out. Some hold on to their grief, for it enables and maintains connection with our loved ones. Others, over time, learn to let go of the grief and still maintain connection with our loved ones.
But not to have loved at all…not to have laughed or cried together, not to have travelled or explored the world together, not to have shared our dreams and fears, not to have felt their touch or their embrace– is it really worth it…to avoid the pain of loss?
And so, we come together at Yizkor to remember. Each of us, alone in our grief, join together with community to acknowledge our pain, our loss, and our healing. Although we walk this path alone, each in our own way, we are accompanied by others who share our journey, each in their own way.
We all walk in the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil, for we are held up by G-d, by our loved ones that surround us, and by our loved ones who are no longer with us. So long as we live, we will be forever blessed by our shared experiences and our shared love.
Rabbi Pamela Gottfried shared a Hasidic teaching about a rope stretching from Heaven to every mourner. She wrote: “When a person dies, he or she is mourned by someone they loved in life, and every time that mourner recites the yizkor prayer, the mourner is holding on to the end of a rope. This rope stretches all the way to heaven, where the comforting presence of God grips the other end tightly. Sometimes, our loss overwhelms us, and we drop our end of the rope. Sometimes, in our sorrow or panic, we grab onto it more tightly. But God never lets go of the end of the rope in heaven…
In sorrow, we remember our loved ones who are no longer here to hold our hands as we walk this earth. They have returned to the dust from which we were all created, and to where we all return. Yizkor is a time to reach for the rope:
It is our connection to them, and to God, whose unbounded compassion for us can help us heal the pain as we grieve, and as we remember.” (https://www.shiva.com/learning-center/prayers/yizkor-sermon/).
Yizkor is our time to hold on and be held. To embrace our memories and our love even as we embrace our loss, knowing with the pain that grief entails, that it is, without a doubt, better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.