All too often, we rabbis are called upon to officiate and eulogize funeral of someone we either do not know, or do not know well. In most cases, we do a formal ‘intake’ where we actively listen to family and friends about their loved one. It is through their eyes that we are able to create narratives to share about the deceased with the community.
And yet, there are also times where we are called upon to officiate at the funerals of those we know and of those we love. In my own case, I was asked to officiate at the funeral of my wife’s beloved grandmother Rachel a few years ago. As someone intricately involved in the family dynamics of the situation, it is certainly a very different place to be than as an outside observer, which is neither good nor bad, just different.
And then there are the times where we go as mourners. Monday December 16, 2013, I attended the funeral of Samuel Asher Sommer, known on the web as Superman Sam. Sam was the son of my dear classmates Rabbis Michael and Phyllis Sommer. I have known Michael and Phyllis for nearly two decades, and over the past 18 months they have shared openly their journey with the world as Sam has battled against refractory acute myeloid leukemia, or what Sam referred to as the ‘Ninja’ Leukemia.
Now I won’t say Sam lost his battle, because he didn’t. He fought every step of the way. And through his struggles, he taught many of us how to live better and how to love more intensely. He simply ran out of options as he ran out of time. Sam died peacefully surrounded by his parents loving embrace. And as his mother Phyllis wrote, “throughout his entire life, Sam was never alone.”
I was awestruck as well by the words of Rabbi Steven Lowenstein, who not only officiated at Sam’s funeral, but also knew him deeply and intensely. Rabbi Lowenstein is the Senior Rabbi at Am Shalom where Rabbi Phyllis Sommer is the Associate Rabbi.
Rabbi Lowenstein has been there through every step of Sam’s journey as well. And to be able to be present and give the family the ability to grieve without breaking down himself, is simply amazing. I was in tears throughout the whole service. I can’t imagine the emotions he must have been holding back to do this. As he said, “the ninja leukemia may have ravaged his body, but it never touched his soul.”
During this time I began to think about the grieving process in general. I weep both for the early loss of Sam, and all the things he will never get to do and experience. I grieve for my friends and their other children David, Yael and Solly. I am heartbroken for Sam’s grandparents and uncles.
I want desperately to take away their pain or at least alleviate their sorrow. But the truth is, when it comes to grieving, many of us strive to do this. We try to find just the right words or do just the right action that will make everyone just a little less sad. But that is not our job.
Our job is simply to be a source of comfort, to be a presence. Whether this is a shoulder to cry upon, a warm embrace or simply an acknowledgement, we are there to be the pillar for the mourners to lean upon.
It is not about us, it is about them. So what then can we do? Most importantly to reach out to those mourning not just in the days leading up to the funeral nor the days immediately following, but the days, weeks, months and years later. It does not mean we have to bring food or cheer them up, it just means we are letting them know that we love them and the memory of their departed are dear to our hearts.
We may never be able to make sense of the loss of a loved one. But what we can do is to work to make their lives continue to have meaning. I, for one, am committed to keeping Sam’s story alive and vibrant. He was an amazing kid who was wise beyond his years. He loved turtles and googly eyes. He loved stories and bugs, and he had a mischievous side. His memory will be for an abiding blessing. And for the thousands who knew him or got to know him through social media, may our Loving God provide consolation to their sorrowing hearts. For Sam will be greatly missed.
And for those of you who would like to do something in Sam’s memory, a group of rabbis and rabbinic students will shaving their heads in March at our annual Rabbinic conference to raise money to fight childhood cancer. Donations can made through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation http://www.stbaldricks.org/participants/mypage/661975/2014 (this happens to be his father’s page. His mother and others have pages as well).