One is hesitant to even remotely capitalize on someone else’s grief. This is hardly the intent here; rather, a desire to share something that informs my life. Beyond that, it haunts me and I sense that it is just at the cusp of a deeper, national impulse of despair that is authentic as it is discomfiting.
In my role as a rabbi to a congregation of elders, I immediately phoned a member this week who is suffering from a uniquely grievous tragedy; her grandson was one of the 30 Navy Seals who was killed in the helicopter attack that so shocked our country and deepened our national malaise.
Platitudes and/or theological clichés only work if you are certain that the person you are addressing is simple.
What do you say to someone suffering through a blow like this? How do you honor her experience in this life without patronizing her wisdom and personal history? I’ve learned over more than three decades (especially from mistakes and presumptions) to say as little as possible and to do more listening than talking. Platitudes and/or theological clichés only work if you are certain that the person you are addressing is simple.
Reacting to sudden and/or violent deaths, most particularly when it involves children or grandchildren, is personal. A common refrain, overwhelmingly understandable, is for the older person to cry out in anguish: “It’s unnatural. I should have died before him.” Or: “If only God had taken me first!” In my own case, there is not a scintilla of a possibility that I wouldn’t give up my life instantly in exchange for that of either of my two daughters.
The problem is that war brutally disarticulates the natural flow of the generations. We, the elders, deliberately and calculatedly send our youth to be killed, maimed, or psychologically damaged by this most diabolical form of human enterprise. Sometimes, we have had to—only dreamers could have questioned our need to dispatch the flower of our populace to stop the fascists of World War II. The threat posed by the Nazis and the Japanese in those uncommonly grave times was existential and real.
Nobody was rationalizing anything when, standing over the fresh grave of a GI between 1941 and 1945, we labeled the young man or woman as a hero—someone who gave up his/her life in a genuine moment of national danger.
It’s not that the 30 Navy Seals (and the thousands and thousands of their peers in all the services) are not heroic people. It’s just that, as my congregant told me immediately when I expressed my sympathy and indicated that I would not try to be clever with some formulaic response, she immediately declared: “Well, this was so stupid and I’m angry. How does a government put 30 fine young people in one helicopter like that and expose them to fire?” And then: “There’s nothing really to be said beyond that.”
It turns out that the grandmother said everything in her brief, tortured, elegiac proclamation about the choices the United States has been making for decades now when it comes to the profoundly serious question of when and where we send our children.