Things Matter: On Giving Wildfire Victims Space to Grieve

October 17, 2017Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, RJE

Three years ago, my family had a large house fire. We lost the top floor of our home and had significant water damage downstairs. It took almost a year to rebuild and for us to return home. I am forever grateful that we all got out and were safe, that the firefighters fought with bravery and courage, and that the damage wasn’t worse.

However, I remember standing at the first Shabbat after the fire, realizing that nothing on my body – from my clothes, to my shoes, to my jewelry, to the cell phone in my pocket – was something I had owned the week before. Like being kicked in the gut, I doubled over and began to sob.

As we face the horrific destruction of the fires and floods in our world right now, I have been struck by how many times I have heard people say to those who have lost their homes, “They’re just things,” “You can buy new ones,” and “Just be grateful everyone is OK.” Their words, of course, are meant to comfort; we want to help people put the loss in perspective and to let them know they will be all right in the end. After all, we know we can just go to the store and replace so many of the things we own.

But in our hearts, we know how foolish these words are. Our things are important and precious to us. They are physical manifestations of our memories. They are our attachment to people and places. They are infinitely meaningful, help us feel safe and secure, and remind us who we are.

In the Gemara (Talmud) in Masechet Shabbat 14, it is taught that that we are forbidden to touch the parchment of the Torah scroll barehanded. In the Shulhan Aruch, this Jewish law is taken even further, saying that you should wash your hands before touching the Torah Scroll. It is because of these teachings that we have a yad – a specially made pointer to touch the Torah. Yet for all the importance of its words and symbolism to our people, isn’t a Torah scroll really just a thing?

I think of my great grandmother, who endured the long journey to America from Eastern Europe crammed in the steerage of a boat. She brought her clothes, her necessities, and the heavy brass Shabbat candlesticks she received as a wedding present from her husband. Like the rabbis of old, my grandmother knew the truth: Things do matter.

I rummaged through my jewelry box the other day looking for a specific necklace. It was silver and Roman glass, and was given to me as a gift from my husband when he returned from a trip to Israel. The few weeks he was gone were rough; I had two little kids, was working, and deeply missed his support and companionship.

The necklace reminded me of how the world goes on, building one layer on top of the other. I loved the intersection of old and new. I loved imaging a modern silversmith crafting her art, using the remnants from a community who lived hundreds of years ago. I loved how proud my husband was of the find, and how I knew it was more than we could afford but was so grateful.

There was a moment, standing in my beautifully rebuilt bedroom, when I realized that, of course, the necklace wasn’t in my jewelry box. Though many other new and beautiful pieces were there, that necklace was one of the many I had lost in the fire. The tears I thought I was finally done crying came unexpectedly. Things do matter.

As we comfort those who lost their homes in the last few weeks (or try to find comfort in our own loss), let us not discount the importance of precious things and the grieving that needs to take place. Let us allow ourselves to cry over necklaces and favorite T-shirts and the artwork we created with our children.

There is no doubt that it is different than losing loved ones – but is nonetheless heartbreaking. Things, precious items filled with our memories, do matter.

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