Love IS Stronger than Death
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion. -Dylan Thomas
Although I graduated from college with a degree in Comparative Literature, I was unfamiliar with this beautiful but spiritually challenging verse until I saw Catherine, the heroine of the TV show "Beauty and the Beast," utter these words with her last breath in the arms of the "beast." After that scene, I stopped watching the show. I had never dealt well with loss, even when it was fictional. And the idea of love being stronger than death seemed the stuff of fairy tales.
I now know otherwise. Love IS stronger than death, and does not die.
My wife, Rachel Hertzman, and I have four children-Jackie, 24, Sarah, 21, Nathaniel, 13, and Mitch, who will forever be 17. Last January 31, Mitch, Rachel, and I watched the movie "The Kids Are All Right." Mitch went to bed after e-chatting with one of his sisters about whether Annette Bening rather than Natalie Portman really deserved the Academy Award. (Movies are a big deal in our family.) The next morning, Rachel woke Mitch as usual. In the shower, he experienced a catastrophic cardiac event and was gone before reaching the ground. Rachel and I found him together, and our world-as we then knew it-came to an end.
In the immediate aftermath of Mitch's death, the surviving five of us literally clung to one another. We needed to cocoon ourselves in the home that had been filled with the sound of his laughter and, at rare times, his anger-usually at the Baltimore Ravens when they'd blown another chance. Sarah came home from college, Jackie left her apartment and moved back in with us for three weeks, Nate took off a week from school. Rachel and I removed ourselves from the stuff of our daily lives, stumbling through the fog of a world in shards and feeling the first stirrings of redemptive gratitude for the friends helping us to get through those early, nightmarish days.
We recognized that we needed to work hard to learn how to remain a close-knit family without Mitch. He'd been the Perlmeter/Hertzmans' mellowing, bonding catalyst. The others of us are-each in our own way-hard-wired to be pretty intense about life. I'd always been in Type-A careers-as senior rabbi of medium and large congregations and now as a mission-driven organizational rabbi. Rachel, while more low-key about her pulpit and teaching work, is nonetheless a worrier in the day-to-day management of our lives. Jackie, Sarah, and Nate each bring individual reactivities to school, work, and relationships. Mitch, however, was unique among us. His go-with-the flow mentality lightened the atmosphere at home when the intensity of one among us threatened to get out of hand. He made us all laugh with his colorful descriptions of events at school and the antics of his friends. He couldn't stay angry, and in the rare instances when his relaxed nature backfired on him (as in cases of mysteriously missing homework), he poked fun at himself and smiled. He had an immeasurable capacity to move on.
How could we possibly continue to be a family without Mitch that resembled the one we'd become with him?
Thankfully, we soon discovered that Mitch had planted seeds of his loving presence in each of us, and in doing so, had sown the possibility of healing.
Jackie had internalized Mitch's clarity about what really mattered in life. She devoted the first months after his death to staying close to home, making us and her friends her first priority; the rest, she realized, is just commentary.
Sarah is our adventurer. The active center of her life had always been in communities of friends across the country and, even, the globe. In the wake of losing Mitch, she, too, began to live by his legacy-generously offering her presence to the family she'd always loved and taking joy in it.
Nate is learning to find greater pleasure in just being-that's Mitch all over!
Rachel and I also reexamined our priorities through Mitch's eyes. The day after he died, Rachel said to me, "We can't live in the world of 'might-have-beens.' We have to learn to deal with the one we're in now." It felt as if this instinctive wisdom had been whispered in her ear by the son who had become our guardian angel. She began cutting back on commitments outside the home to focus more steadily on our family's and her own emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs. She took primary responsibility for our increased attention to family time, especially once I'd returned fully to work. Family meals, always important to us, received a new emphasis, as did daily communication, just to check in with one another and process what each of us was going through. Her love and focus on what really mattered held us all together.
For me, choosing my life through his eyes meant making a huge career decision. I had been a candidate for an organizational position of significant national scope. Even before Mitch's death, strains of that candidacy were manifesting themselves in our family and in my conduct. Within a few days of losing him, it became crystal clear to me that I had to withdraw my candidacy. The responsibility to which I aspired was one which others could fill as well or better. My responsibility to be part of my family's journey of healing was incumbent upon me alone.
Together, the five of us are making a new version of our family that is true to Mitch's spirit. We acquired a small getaway place-a site for the family to retreat from the craziness of our daily lives. We have also reestablished our former tradition of family vacations, about which we'd become more careless in recent times. Helping us to make these get-aways are financial assets given to Mitch at his birth; our trips of renewal have now become a tribute to his memory. Our first family venture was to Harry Potter World, inspired by our son who so loved the stories of "the boy who lived." We also deepened our connections to a place where "it's summertime forever"-perhaps the first love of Mitch's life outside the family, URJ Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pennsylvania. Mitch loved the way that, at camp, community becomes family. He had his first kiss there, he made his best friends there, and he learned to be a leader there too-he was probably never more fulfilled than when he choreographed a dance for a bunch of 14-year-old guys from his unit for the Camp Talent Show. He didn't know a thing about dance, but he knew music and had a sense of style that made the dance a YouTube hit, at least among Harlam alums.
In our gratitude for the man Harlam helped him to become, our family established the Mitch Perlmeter Scholarship Fund (to help others experience the blessing of Harlam), presented the first Leadership Award in his honor at camp this past summer, and held a Frisbee tournament on the soccer fields where he so loved to play.
Still, our family's process of healing has not always been easy, especially when we have been in different phases of the grief cycle. Nate, in particular, whose brother was his best friend and protector, could not address his grief at home with us in the months following Mitch's death. Perhaps it was too immediately painful, or he was afraid to add to our devastation by sharing his own-but, be as it may, while at Camp Harlam (his safe place, too) with Mitch's friends serving as his counselors and supervisors, his grief emerged, and he began to deal with it.
Everyone else, too, had unique rhythms and manifestations of grief. My sorrow manifested outwardly in frequent outbursts of tears and the need, even now, to talk about him often. Rachel's grieving was more internal and less extreme in outward expression of feelings. Sarah, back at school, went through the early stages of her grief with whatever love we could give from a distance. And Jackie, being the oldest sibling, was as busy taking care of everyone else as herself.
Allowing one another the space to grieve in our own ways and checking in regularly about what each of us was experiencing has brought us closer than we have ever been-another of Mitch's gifts. As Rabbi Steven Kushner of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey pointed out in the eulogy, Mitch had a unique ability to love people where and as they are. Whereas most of us try to fit others into the molds and shapes we think they should adopt, he simply accepted what is. Living the fact that there is no one right way to grieve, simply accepting and honoring the different patterns of mourning in each of our lives, was what he would have done-and wished for us.
The rhythm of our family's life these months is the slow, steady, beating heart of love, announcing simply: I am here for you. That's the way Mitch would have wanted it. And because of it, each of us has travelled our own way without him without having to feel alone.
I have come to understand, too, why, for much of my life, I could not deal with fictional grief. Throughout my life, I had always felt as though I'd been born under a lucky star. Raised by loving parents, capable academically and socially, blessed with a wonderful family, challenged by an exciting career…the first 50 years seemed too good to last. I feared the possibility that any or all of it could vanish in an instant and wondered whether I'd be able to handle it, if and when tragedy occurred. Indeed, on the day Mitch died, the words of Job came to me: "That which I feared is come upon me" (Job 3:25).
Despair was so tempting….But I've discovered that amidst the worst of tragedies I can still survive. I've learned how: through the power of love. I've found that God is present in the love Mitch continues to create even when he's no longer here physically to share it. His love, the whole family's love, surrounds me like a tallit. I also find myself returning, again and again, like a mantra, to Rabbi Rami Shapiro's beautiful translation of the Ahavat Olam prayer:
We are loved by an unending love. We are embraced by arms that find us even when we are hidden from ourselves....
In all of this I find God, the source and possibility of life and love. I am renewed in the belief that a greater Love is always there, even when I cannot see or feel it.
A love like this can heal even this deepest of hurt, the jagged edges dulling even as the hole does not close. Day by day, I feel this happening, and I know that because of love, like Mitch, I have an immeasurable capacity to move on.
A teacher with whom I recently studied reminded our class of a simple truth: Every relationship in our lives must end. Some will end when they're "supposed to"; others not. Some will conclude with our own departure; some with that of the other. But all will end. This is the sad truth of our mortality. But it is also the invitation to establish ties that will defeat that reality. So, if you and I can join with the many joyful people sporting purple wristbands reading "Mitch Perlmeter-Keep Smiling," if we can nurture love in all of its manifestations and keep smiling ourselves, we will connect to something eternal, something that can bind us to life, even when death threatens to destroy us. Our loss goes on and is great; our love goes on and is greater.
Then, love IS stronger than death.
Rabbi Rex Perlmeter is the Union for Reform Judaism's Congregational Network Rabbinic Director, East.