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Rabbi David A. Lyon
September 26, 2012
10 Tishrei 5773


“After Great Pain”


Last year at this time, I spoke about my father’s death only six months after he died. It was so difficult to do. You were so patient with me. Now, at a safer distance from his death, it is easier for me to think of him and the gifts of his life. But, it isn’t just the meaning of his life that is past that I examine; it is also the meaning of my life and yours which are so intertwined with all those who are gone. We share this hour because we are mourners, and we remember, together.

                Whether our loss is old or new, all of us seek and find consolation. Sometimes we find it in thoughtful words from others, or in cherished experiences we recall. Sometimes we find consolation in personal memories we still share only with our beloved. But, I know, because it was true for me, too, that while we welcome the company of others because it distracts us from our grief for a little while, we still retreat to a favorite chair in a favorite room to sit with the lights out, perhaps, and feel what we have to feel, alone.

                Each of us heals at different rates. We respond to different therapies. In a poem by Emily Dickinson, she addresses the process of grief and remembering.

                The poem begins, “After great pain a formal feeling comes…” It concludes, “This is the hour of lead; remembered, if outlived, as freezing persons, recollect the snow, first chill, then stupor, then the letting go.”

                Every poem leaves room for personal understanding. This is how I understand it. “Great pain” is the death of a loved one. Then the formal feeling of grief and sorrow come. It overwhelms us. We call it grief, but only for lack of the perfect word. Grief fills our homes and grief presses on our hearts. We can’t avoid it easily. We can’t push it off of us.

                This “hour of lead” is not just an hour. Well beyond the time of death or the hour at the cemetery, it’s the other 8, 760 lead-laden hours in the year that drag on slowly and weigh on us.

                Having outlived the shock, we move on; but not without experiencing a deeply formal feeling. We are freezing persons, not frozen persons. Freezing means we are moving through a process. Frozen means we are fixed without motion. And, we are many individual persons mourning, rather than one group of people mourning. Each of us experiences first the chill, then the stupor.

                Anyone who has ever been in the snow and cold for too long has known the chill that can overcome you. Very soon, the stupor comes to make your face feel so cold you can’t move your jaw to speak easily. Your steps become rigid. Your fingers and toes start to feel numb. Your nose runs. Your eyes feel cold. The stupor is blinding cold, discomfort, uncertainty and fear.

                Freezing hurts and thawing from the cold is supposed to bring relief. But, if thawing happens too quickly, then it can hurt, too. Likewise, denying ourselves time to overcome our grief, moving too quickly through stages of mourning, can cause pain now and later. Therefore, the hour of lead necessarily drags on. It forces us to move against the normal rhythm of our life, and to feel everything in every hour of every day. We keep moving, because we don’t want to be frozen in place where there is only great pain. Moving slowly, despite our preference to hurry up, brings us closer to the warmth of renewed safety, sheltered from the cold.

                Then the letting go. To me, the letting go can mean two things. It’s possible that letting go means succumbing to the chill and pain of grief. Letting it wash over us, it hurts us. It disables us for a while. We survive it, but having succumbed to it, we recollect it later, over and again. We don’t want to, but now we can’t help ourselves.

                Preferably, letting go can mean remembering our loved ones without succumbing to grief.  Letting go can mean feeling what we must. When we’re freezing, we must feel cold. When we’re grieving, we must hurt. But eventually we want to come in from the cold where we can thaw slowly. Then we can recollect the snow, our grief, without also being frozen in it.

                Upon reflection, an author commented on Dickinson’s poem. She wrote:

                “As I inwardly repeated the words [of the poem], I reflected that there is no straight-lined map or tourists’ guide to lead us through the snow. We must clear that path for ourselves, and we each will go about it differently — digging, searching, perhaps getting lost along the way, or simply waiting for the thaw. But, seeing the possibility of any path at all means not giving up; and not giving up is itself a sign of strength”. (After Great Pain, Diane Cole, page 206)

                After the great pain a formal feeling comes. Let it come. Feel what you will today and tomorrow through the lead-laden hours of the year. Know that we are not frozen and that letting go is not about forgetting. Yizkor means remembering. We remember every day. Memories propel us to live, as our loved ones wished to live. Today, we ask God to remember, too, all the loved ones who graced our life with joy and gladness, with love and blessings. In faith, we ask: O God, remember our loved ones, the men, women and children who filled our days; that they may know that love once shared in this world is a love that endures in the peace of life eternal. May you embrace them, O God, as they once embraced us; love them as they loved us; and, then with grateful hearts, may we all be comforted. Amen.

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