My daughter Hana would have celebrated her twenty-eighth birthday today, October 14, but she killed herself at the end of May 2011. She had just begun an accelerated Masters program in social work at the University of North Carolina. She was being treated for bipolar disorder, but most of the people who attended her funeral knew her as a radiant, energetic, talented woman who was fervently committed to repairing injustice in the world and to establishing deep, loving connections with everyone she met.
For all of the eleven months of the Jewish period of mourning and beyond, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to move beyond the unbearable pain I felt all the time. Of course, I was completely distraught—and the intensity of my agony corresponded to the magnitude of my love! I found the well-intentioned comforters who told me, “Be patient, time heals,” to be hurtful and offensive. At the time, I understood them as implying that some day, I would love Hana less—that God forbid, I would forget her.
Before Hana died, I had a practice of sitting, embraced in God’s arms. I pictured God holding and comforting me, offering me compassion. It wasn’t a practice that I had come to naturally. I had been raised in the Orthodox Jewish community to think of God as a judge, an infinitely majestic Being whose absolute virtue highlighted my imperfections. This really obstructed the building of a relationship because I couldn’t let my guard down with God. I could not imagine sitting in God’s presence, warts and all. You had to dress up when you went to synagogue.
I had long believed that all of the images we ascribe to God are inaccurate human projections onto a Being who is beyond words and images. It was only in the last fifteen years, however, that I realized that I could revise my image of God from harsh and exacting to soft and gentle. I needed no assistance from God to be self-critical, but I did need help in cultivating compassion. I found a photo of my mother in a skunk coat and feather hat holding me in front of our apartment building on Clay Avenue in the Bronx when I would have been about eight months old. My hat has earlaps snapped around my chin. She is squeezing me cheek to cheek, smiling wide. And so I began to sit for thirty minutes a day, picturing God in a skunk coat and feather hat, holding me with infinite compassion.
Following Hana’s funeral, I could no longer feel God holding me. I could feel God sitting next to me, in deeply empathic silence. Unlike many people, God had the wisdom and the decency not to say anything hurtful or stupid. But I still missed God’s embrace, which did not return for well over a year.
God is always embracing us, I believe, but we rarely discern the divine presence. As a Spiritual Director, I sit with people and notice with them where and when the divine shines through in their everyday lives. A key to spiritual growth is often increasing the number of parts of ourselves that we allow to be embraced by God.
Two and a half years after Hana’s suicide, the intensity of my pain has diminished, but it still is never too far from my consciousness. Last week, at a monthly peer group meeting of spiritual directors in which I participate, it was my turn to present. I noted that at this point, when someone asks me how I’m doing, I respond that things are going well, and that’s true. But it is also true that I grieve for Hana multiple times each day, with varying degrees of pain and intensity.
When one of my colleagues suggested that I invite God to be with me in the two states, I discovered that it was effortless to be with God in my grief. The two of us have spent a lot of time there together. By contrast, when I sought to locate the divine presence in my joy, I couldn’t, because it didn’t really feel as if it was the authentic me dancing at that wedding, for example. Rather, I have been viewing myself as a broken man who is only able to act as if I am whole.
I’m gradually embracing the awareness that I’m both broken and whole, and that I will always be broken and whole. I will always be the father of Hana, may her memory be for a blessing, who killed herself. And I will also always be a man who is loving, generous, compassionate, and wise—the more so because of my suffering. I can simultaneously grieve and rejoice. And I can allow myself to feel God’s embrace no matter how sad or happy or both I am.
I will never be the person I was before Hana died—yet I will always be a suitable object of divine love and compassion.
Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.
This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/asking-for-help/