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Grieving, Remembering, and Moving Forward

Grieving, Remembering, and Moving Forward

Joel and Phyllis Hersch

In the background of my daily thoughts and awareness, my grief over the loss of my wife of 53 ½ years is unrelenting. It has been more than a year since she died, but still, I hide it from everyone. I don’t want my grief to interfere with my living relationships; it would overcome them and make sympathy and empathy cumbersome.

Instead, I let the grief and sorrow happen when no one is looking. My grief often rears its head when it’s dark, when I’m alone, like when I come across Phyllis’s nail file, the marks of her self-manicuring still evident on its surface.

When I go to the closet for a shirt and see her purse. Phyllis passed away with $17 still remaining tucked away in her wallet. In Judaism, the number 18 is significant. Eighteen is chai, meaning life and good fortune – as the Fiddler on the Roof song goes, “To life, to life, l’chaim…” 

What an ironic twist of fate. A message from above from the All-Knowing One? I consider adding $1 to the sum to make it $18 – but what good can come from $17 and $1 that would be a valid memorial to my most cherished lifelong soulmate and companion? Perhaps I should ask for suggestions.

The episodes of sorrow that tear at my heart come from so many places: the empty seat at the kitchen table when I have breakfast; a tune on the car radio that sang along to together, smiling at each other; our dog, Max, lying alone on the sofa instead of snuggled against her.

Without her here, there are so many empty places, so many empty sights, and so much emptiness. And yet, I never thought of retreating into the emptiness; I know my dear Phyllis wanted me to continue to embrace life.

She once even confided to me that a widow and dear friend would make a good companion for me. After her death, my daughter suggested I subscribe to an online Jewish dating service. While some may have had success doing so, I was soon discouraged and gave up the effort – until a female friend in a chavurah (fellowship) group we belonged approached me and said, “Joel, I didn’t know you were looking. Would you be willing to meet two of my widowed lady friends?” As another Fiddler on the Roof song goes, “Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match…”

Now, there is a wonderful woman in my life, someone I am able to love, to talk with, to enjoy and learn to learn from. She is Jewish by choice, independent, active, and intelligent, and she has a varied and most interesting life and history. She loves me, and we are good for each other.

Yes, I feel I am now making my way.

I have my friends, too, both new and old. I have my grown children, and I have my grandchildren. I share their triumphs and their happiness. I share their successes and their happiness.

I have moved on. I served on the board at synagogue before, and now I am in a chair role once again. I even worked in the synagogue office for three years and became acquainted with many members personally. I am a member of the Jewish War Veterans and write for the local Federation paper, L’Chaim.                                                                   

I volunteer at my synagogue. I go to my gym. I have my golf and bridge lessons. And I still watch my Rays baseball games – but now I can watch them from the bedroom. Phyllis used to kick me out to the living room so she could watch The Bachelor!

Phyllis will be forever 74, while I am growing older, my wrinkles a little deeper. When we meet in heaven, will she recognize me? And if she asks, “What did you do with my $17?” I may not have a good answer for her – but I will be able to tell her, “I lived my life well, and I will always love you.”

Joel Hersch is a member of the board of trustees of Temple Beth El in Fort Myers, FL, and the Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties.

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