Two Deaths, One Answer
After my brother died, I was frozen with grief—until author Harold Kushner helped me rediscover community
It was not that I didn’t feel love for others; on the contrary, I had an abundance of undirected love that seemed to have been previously tied up in Eli. It was like I was walking around on Ecstasy at a rave where I was the only attendee, with nobody to give my love to. Seeing no direction to my daily routine, it scared me that I was starting to feel an alliance with the glassy-eyed cat ladies on the subway. I feared I was losing my soul.
A few weeks ago, I met Kushner while producing the trailer for his new book, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person. Kushner dedicated the book to his son Aaron, who died when he was 14 years old—just like Eli—of the rare degenerative disease Progeria. Since Aaron’s death in 1977, Kushner has been driven to do good in the world on his son’s behalf and to help others understand the nature of suffering. I broached this analogue in our losses in a brief conversation with Kushner, expressing my frustration of not knowing how to go on and how to relate to my father’s family after what happened. He recommended that I read his earlier book, the 1981 best-seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, not because I would find closure within it, but because it would put me on a track of questioning the universe productively.
In both books, Kushner explores the circumstances of the biblical character Job, whose faith was tested by God during a series of tragedies that befell him. I saw an important parallel to my own situation: The rabbi who played the “everything happens for a reason” card during Eli’s eulogy was making the same mistake that Job’s friends made when they came to comfort him after God killed his sons; Job’s friends, like this rabbi, might have looked like they were attempting to console Job, but they were actually more interested in defending God. Kushner argues that when the mourning father cries out, “Why did God do this to me?” he is not actually trying to find out God’s rationale, but rather affirm that he, the mourner, is indeed a good person despite being struck by such a tragedy. At that moment, the mourner does not need God per se; he needs a supportive community to rally around him.
While in When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Kushner describes God as limited in his ability to control natural disasters, asserting that God is moral and nature is not, he comes full circle in grappling with God’s limitations as self-imposed: It’s not that God is absent when tragedy strikes, it’s that he is found in strong community and other manifestations of comfort in tragedy’s aftermath. Without anthropomorphizing God as a bearded man in the sky, I suddenly could sense what God was all about. I now could see that it was important to visualize my own image of a perfect universe and what it would look like in this utopia where everyone was a good person providing community and strength to one another. It felt right to pursue God by way of allowing myself be vulnerable among a trusted community, instead of putting all of the burden of the pursuit of the good life on my being a professional rock.
After meeting Kushner and reading his books, I returned to Chicago to be with family and friends, and I felt different. I opened up in such a way that I realized, aside from a short stint in psychotherapy, I really wasn’t talking substantively with those I trusted about what happened to Eli. There was always an urge to make those who wanted to console me feel OK, like a goody bag: Thanks for coming to my pity party, your efforts were not in vain. But being vulnerable is not just OK, it’s necessary, and making efforts to find community one can trust before tragedy hits is crucial for survival after it hits.
The fact is, bad things happened to good people in June 2011: not just Eli, but his mother, his father, his siblings, and those who loved him and who love us. “Life is about suffering” may be a fine mindset for existing, but it is not satisfying as a way to live. Life isn’t merely about existing but about working through suffering—an impossible thing to do alone. These days, I find it hard to fault anyone for working through suffering by way of the belief in a higher intelligence. But that’s just not my style. I believe in God now, and I see the divine in the love of others.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
David Nahmias keeps a family tradition alive by making mahia, a Moroccan fig brandy, in America