Life Lessins Blog

Unfillable Holes – Finding Meaning After Premature Loss

There are holes in life, spaces where the fabric never reconnects. The cloth doesn’t regenerate in those spots – it gapes like an open wound that no bandage could ever cover. The chasm left where a loved one once stood can be so wide that at times it’s all we can see, until a jolt of reality brings us back to the life we are still in – the one in which they’re not here. Time helps and solace soothes, but the throbbing never subsides completely. There is no filling the holes that remain in the place where a dear one ought to be, no way to fully patch up the tapestry that has been torn apart by a person who was taken too soon.

Holes in life are located in the heart, but we feel them in the rest of the body as well. In eyes that see a void in the family picture, ears that hear the other end of an unfinished conversation, hands that reach for a touch that never comes, arms that ache for one more embrace. The brain tries to do precisely what Gestalt psychologists said it would – to connect the lines and fill in the blanks so that life can still seem somewhat recognizable. But it will never be, at least not fully. Because, as many of us tragically discover, part of being human is learning to live with unfillable holes.

People in Israel are living with such holes. So many of our loved ones have been snatched from us in the last three months – either from communities neighboring Gaza or from battles raging within it. We fear waking up each morning because we don’t know who we’ll discover is no longer here. The dreaded knock on the door arrives at someone’s house nearly every day. This is the price of war, we say, but it doesn’t make the pain any easier. Parents, spouses, siblings, and children around the country are struggling to cope with holes that have been punched into their hearts.

The mind spins in a hundred directions as we try to wrap our heads around something that just doesn’t fit. How could this have happened? What about our plans for the future? How can it be that we send off our son in uniform but the uniform comes back without him in it? Why does Hashem want it this way? Why them? Why me? We feel the need to make sense of it. Or at least try to. But as we wrestle with an impossible reality, we seem to lose every single time.

Though statistically, most of us will not have lost a family member in the Gaza war, many of us have come face to face with premature death: terminal illness, car accidents, suicide, drug overdose. These are not all the same, surely; each brings a unique form of grief and a distinct process of healing. But what they share in common is the hard truth that life sometimes takes people from us before we are ready to see them go. How do we cope with loss before its time? When a part of us is severed, how are we meant to continue living?

There is no simple answer to these questions, nor is there one path for the bereaved relatives of a young family member. Healing is an arduous journey with many dips and endless days. But there is a way forward, because there must be. Life marches on. And as it does, we look for a way to put ourselves back together after we’ve been irrevocably shattered. Here is what that sojourn may look like.

Emerging from the hole

While the nature of holes is that they live within us, we often find ourselves living within them. Especially during the first year after losing a loved one (and often for much longer), it can feel as if we’re perpetually below ground, surrounded by high walls that close us off from the outside world. People try to pull us out, but their efforts can’t possibly span the abyss between their realm and ours. We’re here alone with only our memories. We may occasionally glance up at the sun after several days of forgetting it’s still there, but we have little interest in looking beyond that. Sadness is forever encamped behind our eyes, always ready to push out more tears. Perhaps we want it to stay that way for now – we want to feel like we’re holding on as long as we can. We’re far from ready to climb out of this hole; we don’t want to let go of what we’ve lost. We’re not prepared to make peace with this new and unwanted reality; it’s just not how things should be.

Holes are strange things, because at some point we can find ourselves on the outside of one and be unsure of how we got there. One day, many months later, we make it all the way to evening and realize that we haven’t fallen apart, that our heart isn’t searing the way it normally does. And we feel terribly, terribly guilty. Have we done something wrong? Should we not be suffering less? Does this mean that we’re forgetting? We grapple with this for a long while, unsure whether it’s ok that we haven’t felt as lost today, because for the longest time we’ve been convinced that we’re never supposed to feel ok again.

“The path back to normal life is indescribably long once death has swept the feet out from under those of us who are left” (Fredrik Backman). Holes bring us all the way up to the edge of what we can handle, and often beyond. But with time, processing, and support, we gradually discover a way to live alongside holes without feeling like we’re always on the verge of sliding back into them. And we hesitantly conclude that this may be ok for now. We start to see that living with loss differs from living within it. We slowly relearn to celebrate birthdays, enjoy family get-togethers, smile at siddur parties, and laugh when our kids cartwheel across the living room, even though all happiness will be tinged with sadness from now on. While the pain of longing has found a permanent residence inside us, it also seems to resurface less. The sun doesn’t seem quite as dim, and we’re able to enjoy the parts of life that still shine. We want our loved ones to be here with us, but we start to realize that they actually still are.

Living with holes means that we can start to do what Jews do best. We can make meaning, even when it’s hard to find any.

Finding meaning

Jews are natural meaning-makers. From a young age, we are trained to look for the deeper message in things, to think about how life events fit into a larger picture, and to wonder what we’re supposed to learn from the challenges that Hashem sends our way. As Dr. Eric Garland and colleagues explain in their Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory, finding meaning starts with creating just enough space to step back, so that we can think about what we’re looking at even while we remain deeply connected to it (Victor Frankl famously taught a similar truth). It’s the experience of holding something at arm’s length instead of just a couple of inches away – we can still see it clearly, but it’s not quite as consuming. It’s the difference between living in a hole where darkness is all we can see and living alongside a hole that becomes an inseparable part of the meaning we choose to find within it.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to glean from holes is that they cause everything that’s actually important in life to suddenly stand out. We’re no longer concerned with who said what; we’re grateful to have people in our lives who are willing to say anything at all. Premature loss has a way of reminding us of everything we had been neglecting to cherish: we want to hold our dear ones closer, to hug our children tighter, to say I love you more often, to have compassion for those who are struggling, to be there for others, to be there for ourselves, to open our hearts to G-d, to find joy in so many little things. Death is the great sifter – it winnows away all that is insignificant and reminds us to focus on what matters. Because we never want to feel again that we should have done that way more often.

Finding meaning can also lead to the realization that perhaps holes don’t only mark the end. Maybe a form of continuity is still possible. Because while we can’t fill holes, we can plant things in them. We can perpetuate the legacy of the deceased by looking at what had been growing in their unique soil and thinking of ways to cultivate their sapling further. A tree cut short only continues to bear fruit if the ones who had been next to it decide that it has more to give. This may take the larger form of chessed initiatives or learning projects in the name of the deceased, or, in a more private way, of honing in on what our loved one stood for and would have wanted, and then setting out to embody just that. We carry their roots forward by letting their seeds and dreams sprout within us. And in this way, they continue to live through the fact that we still are.

The Torah gives us a small example of an individual who seems to have understood the meaning of holes, and that holes can also lead to meaning.

Miriam’s “holy” son

In the second chapter of the Book of Shemot, we learn that a man and woman from the tribe of Levi give birth to a son. After keeping him in hiding for three months, they feel they have no choice but to cast him away on the Nile River in the hopes that he’ll be spared from the impending Egyptian slaughter. In a powerful scene, we read that the boy’s sister, Miriam, stands in the reeds and watches her baby brother float away. She does not know what will become of him, or even if he’ll live at all (Though Chazal explain that Miriam prophesied a future in which this child would go on to rescue the Jewish People, here we’ll stick with the simple reading of the text). We can imagine what Miriam may have been feeling as she saw her brother drift slowly out of sight. She loved him dearly, and now had to part ways for an unknown length of time, perhaps altogether. It was a moment of grappling with the possibility of never seeing him again, along with the painful knowledge that even should her brother survive, he would grow up away from her loving embrace.

Miriam becomes an adult, marries, and has a son of her own. She names him “hole” – Chur. What an appropriate name for the son of a woman who lived through the torture of having to say goodbye to a baby sibling at such a tender age (Though the Ohr HaChaim on Shemot 31:2 explains that Chur’s name also connotes freedom, as in the word chorin, the Ktav V’kabala on Shemot 4:14 teaches that “hole” and “freedom” share the same root. The path to freedom often runs through periods of darkness and despair). Interestingly, we only hear of two episodes in the Torah where Chur plays a part, and in both, he’s supporting Moshe – filling in his holes. Chur holds up one of Moshe’s hands during the war with Amalek (Shemot 17:10), and he stands in to shepherd the Jewish People, alongside Aharon, when Moshe ascends Har Sinai to receive the Torah (Shemot 24:14). Chur becomes his name. He enters the world in the space burrowed into his mother’s heart after she says goodbye to her baby brother, and he lives a life of continuing to fill that gap. His life is an extension of his uncle Moshe, and he becomes exactly that.

When Moshe is born, his parents’ house is filled with light (Sotah 12a). Chur dedicates himself to perpetuating this light, and names his son Uri, which means “my light.” Uri’s wife gives birth to Betzalel, whom Moshe appoints to build the Mishkan, the resting place for Hashem’s light in this world. Chur carried forth the legacy of his uncle’s light, and because of him, the whole world lit up.

Continuing the legacy

Holes are complicated things. We try our best to hide them, hold them, and heal them. But they are here to stay. Dark spots on our canvas can never be washed away; our holes will never disappear. Age helps us realize that some problems in life cannot be fixed; it seems that this is how it must be. But our dear ones will forever be with us. We will always love them, and we will always miss them.

But we will also wake up tomorrow, and the day after that, with a charge to help the departed continue to make their mark through the life we choose to live. In a way, every loved one who is taken too early hands us a mission before they exit, which reads: “Please continue what I could not.” This is our responsibility, and maybe even one of our primary sources of meaning. For although life has taken them away, there will always be a hole inside where they go on living.

L’ilui Nishmat Yehuda Chaim ben Aharon a”h

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