Celebrating Jewish Literature: What remains after grief

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Even though Steve Leder conducted more funerals than he could count in his 30 years in the rabbinate, it wasn’t until he experienced personal loss – the death of his father – that he developed a new philosophy: one that says death offers people the opportunity to experience more meaning in their lives and to love more deeply. Leder, the senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, has written two books to share this idea: “The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift” and “For You When I Am Gone: Twelve Essential Questions to Tell a Life Story” (both published by Avery/Penguin Random House). 

In “The Beauty of What Remains,” Leder focuses on what he believes is the typical reaction of those who are close to death: “Many people are ready for death the way we are ready to sleep after a long and exhausting day... We are not anxious about sleeping. We are not afraid of it. Disease, age, and life itself prepare us for death. There is a time for everything, and when it is our time to die, death is as natural a thing as life itself. Consider this very good news for those of us who fear dying. Dying people are not afraid of dying... Anxiety is for the living.” He notes that he is not talking about those who die young or who die suddenly in an accident. But he believes that people who are ill, especially those suffering from a long-term illness, are usually prepared for death. Whatever worries remain are not for themselves, but for their family.

Many of Leder’s discussions focus on the best ways to tend to those who are dying. He advises visitors to ask questions about the good times they remember. That allows the dying to look back on their lives with joy. Leder does not see these visits as a good time to challenge relatives about painful moments or expect apologies for remembered hurts. According to Leder, while this might seem therapeutic for the living, it is painful to those who are dying. He suggests instead that visitors offer comfort, saying how good a parent/spouse/etc. they have been and because of that the visitor will be OK when they are gone. 

People should also not expect final illnesses to change family dynamics. Leder writes, “Death does not change the essential nature of a person or a family, it just makes everything and everyone more so. Yes, there are rare exceptions, but generally speaking, families who are dysfunctional in life are dysfunctional in death. Loving, close families in life are loving, close families in death.” He uses his family, particularly his relationship with his father as an example, particularly the years his father lost to Alzheimer’s, to model appropriate behavior. The author notes that his good and bad habits are a result of his reactions to his father’s life and example. What he doesn’t explore is how his deep grief might be partly due to the fact that, although he loved his father, his own life took a different direction than he might have wanted because of his father’s influence. 

One of the greatest challenges Leder faces as a rabbi is when he’s asked to council people who are facing seemingly impossible decisions: “Most people coming to see me about a problem have no good options, only bad and worse. Sometimes it is bad to get divorced but worse to stay married. Sometimes it is bad to endure medical treatment but worse not to; other times the opposite is true.” On one occasion, he had to choose between what Judaism says should be done and the needs of the people who are looking to him for support. He notes that in giving that advice, “I violated my faith and confirmed my humanity.” 

“The Beauty of What Remains” also talks about creating a living will, a topic that is the focus of “For You When I Am Gone.” In the latter book, Leder asked a group of friends – of different ages and religions, with children or childless – to answer a series of questions about their lives. He uses those questions as his chapter titles and includes the answers he received, which could serve as the basis of an ethical will that allows parents to offer wisdom to the next generation. The author sees this as a way people can continue to speak to those they love after they are gone. It also offers a tangible document that can be referred to and read even years after a death. In addition to the friends who answered his questions, Leder includes writings from other sources that focus on important life issues and offer advice worth pondering. 

The 12 questions include “When Was a Time You Led with Your Heart?”; “What Makes you Happy?”; “What Was Your Biggest Failure?”; “What Got you Through Your Greatest Challenge?”; “What is a Good Person?”; “What is Love?”; “Have You Ever Cut Someone Out of Your Life?”; “How Do You Want to Be Remembered?”; “What Is Good Advice?”; “What Will Your Epitaph Say?” and “What Will Your Final Blessing Be?” The answers included are interesting and offer excellent advice, even for those not interested in writing an ethical will. 

Some of the most interesting sections are when Leder writes about his own life or offers wisdom he’s learned through his rabbinate. One of my favorite examples can be found in the chapter about failure: “A lot of people think the hardest thing to say is “I’m sorry,’ but I think that it is even harder to say, ‘I was wrong.’ It’s hard to say those words to others and often even harder to ourselves.” He believes this is because people are punished for making mistakes so we try to pretend we have not done anything wrong, rather than facing what truly occurred and dealing with it honestly.

Leder also explains that the question of whether someone is a good person is far more complex than most people think. For example, he notes, “The complicated truth is that the question of good and evil is not about our essence but our essence at any given moment. Ask anyone fighting to stay sober one day, one hour, one minute at a time. Any anyone in a committed relationship with a wandering eye deciding whether or not to remain his or her best and truest self... When it comes to good and evil, we are each at the center of a battle that sometimes rages and sometimes smolders within us until we die.”

In both works, Leder offers his own living will – written for his two children – as an example. Although the author mentions Jewish customs, this is not a work for those seeking information about how to hold a Jewish funeral or the Jewish laws of mourning. It’s aimed at a general audience, one looking for psychological and practical advice on how to deal with the messy emotions of grief and use them to appreciate the beauty life offers.