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At a Time of Tragedy, Finding Comfort in Jewish Calendar

August 10, 2011 By:
Aviva Amy Perlo
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Aviva Perlo (left) with her sister, Robin

The whirlwind that follows tragedy is often a bewildering state that leaves us bereft of any structure, any sense of knowing or comfort. As our kishkes turn inside out longing for our loved ones and for the way it was, we eventually mourn and then learn how to move on.

While I have counseled this professionally for many years, the trauma of this whirlwind has now hit home.

My sister and brother-in-law, Robin and Joshua Berry, passed away suddenly and tragically in a car crash one month ago. Their three children -- 9-year-old Peter, 8-year-old Aaron and 6-year-old Willa -- survived, though with severe injuries. In the days and weeks following the accident, their families and friends have tried to navigate the shock and grief of this devastating reality.

One source of comfort for me came from a surprising place: the Jewish calendar. I wanted to know more about what was happening on the day that Robin and Josh died. A quick online search showed that the day of their passing -- July 3rd -- corresponded with Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, that is, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Tammuz. Tammuz, which ended last week, marks a time of mourning, leading up to Tisha B'Av, which Jews marked this week on Tuesday with a day of fasting. It was the period when the walls of the Temple in Jerusalem were destroyed and also marked those periods when many other disasters befell the Jewish people -- pogroms, expulsions and exile. The synchronicity between the Hebrew calendar and my personal loss amazed me. In a weird way, it was comforting to know that my personal grief coincided with a period of mourning for the Jewish people at large.

Ironically, my sister Robin rarely grieved. She loved a good party. In fact, she planned parties for a living -- weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, family celebrations. Anytime Robin could turn an event into a party, she did. Whether she was hanging with her Tulane Girls at Happy Hour, tying bows on the backs of chairs at Beth Yeshurun, our home synagogue, or running through the sprinklers outside with her kids, Robin knew how to make the most of everything.

One time, Robin even mixed up the word fiasco with fiesta, when really what she meant to say was that she wanted to throw a huge fiesta. We laughed, but now I see that was her deepest truth -- Robin coped with life's hardships by turning fiascos into fiestas. She didn't dwell on the bad stuff, and this is how she soared.

It is said that Tammuz is not only a time of mourning and destruction, but also a time of transformation. We are told not to confuse the occurrence of a tragedy with an ongoing tragic state of mind. It helps me to know that the Jewish tradition offers specific time frames for mourning: seven days of shiva, 30 days shloshim, 11 months to say Kaddish and a yearly yahrtzeit to help us create a container of holiness for the memories of the departed.

The time frames suggest that there are times to mourn and times not to. Books like Dr. Susan Jeffers' Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway helped me when my dad passed away in 1993; they showed me that sometimes the best way out is to go through. When we experience a loss, we come out better on the other side, transformed and more able to live in the present.

The Jewish people are good at overcoming great odds and have bounced back from tremendous hardship, pogroms, the Holocaust, the Hellenists and the destruction of the Temple; but the identity of the Jewish people is much more than that of underdog heroes who slay all the dragons. The challenge is to mourn our losses and then move past them in proper time, without pity for our wounds. Somehow we are to cultivate a way of walking through the unknown that honors the past while also creating a new way of being.

Just as Robin and Josh loved one another and loved their children, may we find the strength to walk forward in the unknown and cultivate love for the new situations that we now have.

Aviva Amy Perlo, raised in Houston, teaches on loss and grief at Temple University's School of Health Professions. For information about how to help support her nephews and niece, email her at: lifeventures36@yahoo.com.

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