The Strength To Go On
By Charles Gourgey
We had been married for four years. It seemed like such a short time, but we had become so close it was almost as though we had known each other forever. When Binyamina came into my life, she illuminated it, bringing spontaneity and joy. She was a talented artist and embroideress, and her embroideries, depicting scenes from nature, lifted my spirits. Her artistic style was unique, and she seemed headed toward a promising career of applying her original designs to traditional religious articles. She was definitely the creative member of our union.
The day that it happened I had been contemplating the future. I was completing my studies as a graduate student, and had begun to apply for jobs in my field. I had just received a notice about the availability of a job, and was waiting to share the news with Binyamina. She was due back that evening from having spent the weekend with a friend. At about the time I would have expected her, the doorbell rang. I thought perhaps she had forgotten her keys. When I answered the door, however, it was not Binyamina but the building superintendent. He said to me, “I think your wife is hurt downstairs.”
I rushed downstairs and found a small crowd of people gathered outside. There were also police. One policeman guided me to a spot where I saw Binyamina lying in a huge pool of blood. Her expression was strangely quiet, almost peaceful, as if she were asleep. The warmth that it evoked in me seemed a terrifying contrast to the violence of the event. I knew what had happened, but did not want to believe it. When the policeman told me she was dead, I screamed. I was unable to walk, and two policemen carried me back into the building. The superintendent took me to his apartment for a while. I remember that although it was a hot summer’s night, the air conditioning made me freeze. Two detectives came in to question me. I found them to be surprisingly sympathetic.
The police investigated, but they never found the man who murdered my wife. His motive apparently was rape, but if so, he was unsuccessful. Binyamina resisted him strenuously and paid with her life. I was in a state of shock, and could barely get out the words to tell my parents what had happened. I went to their house to spend the night. Then came the hard task of telling Binyamina’s family. We decided to have the funeral in Cleveland, where they lived, and so I spent the next week with them.
The large, close-knit family from which Binyamina came was an invaluable asset. They were very supportive of each other and also of me. The week of the funeral was a time we needed to be together, to lean on each other. It was good to be with them, but soon came the time to return to New York to try to pick up what was left of my life.
The readjustment was not easy. Everyone had advice for me: “leave your apartment, find a new place, keep busy, make new friends.” People meant well, but grief cannot be rushed. I soon discovered that the advice one most often hears, “Keep busy,” was not necessarily good advice, at least not for me. First of all, I couldn’t keep busy. I was exhausted. When I tried to fight that exhaustion and be more productive, it did not work. I was violating my own need to mourn. There are certain things one must do just to carry on life’s daily responsibilities, but beyond that, one’s energy is needed for the work of grief that often goes on beneath the surface of consciousness.
I learned that I did not need to be incessantly active. I learned to listen to myself, to know that at some deep level I was working on my grief and separation from Binyamina even when I was not aware of it, and I needed energy for that. Sometimes busying oneself with distractions, especially in the early stages of grief, only postpones the inner work that one needs to do.
During those first few months, I was mainly involved with the inner work. I found that my family and friends could help me greatly, not by giving me advice or trying to cheer me up, but by allowing me to talk if I felt the need, by letting me feel, and by letting me cry. The soul’s emergence from grief is a growing thing that must be nurtured; it cannot be controlled or hurried. Open, active listening does much to nurture it, as one would tend to the needs of any growing, living thing. Simply listening, without any intent to fix or change the situation, may seem passive, but its effect on the healing process cannot be overestimated.
I took many solitary walks. It felt good to be close to nature, to allow my thoughts to sort themselves out. I spoke often to Binyamina, and had the sense in my heart that she could hear me, even if I knew she could no longer respond. When fatigue overcame me, which it often did, I allowed myself to rest, to feel, to meditate. The concern of others may help, but above all one must learn to be self-nurturing.
Only later did I begin to understand how important it was that I was allowing my grief to follow its natural course, instead of following the advice of well-meaning people who could not understand my real needs. The time did come, gradually, when I felt the need to renew my contacts with the world, and my resolve to follow my grief rather than interfere with it helped to prepare me. The first impulse prodding me to break out of my shell took the form of a need to write about my experience, not primarily for my own sake, but to help members of my family who had difficulty reacting to Binyamina’s death and whose faith had been shaken by it.
I then began looking for ways to expand my sphere of human contact. I joined a support group for widowed people, and I looked for opportunities to do volunteer work. Gradually, I became open to meeting new people. Many widowed people have the experience of former friends leaving them, and so it was important for me to be open to new contacts as one way of rebuilding my life.
As I made my way back into the world, I found (shall I say to my surprise?) that although no one whom I met fulfilled me in the deep way Binyamina had, I was able to enjoy each new person’s company just a little, and so each time, just a little, I came more out of myself and my pain was eased. The important thing was to let go of any demands or expectations of finding anything like the experiences of my marriage right away.
Learning not to resent other people for not being Binyamina opened me to what they had to offer, and thus helped to heal me. It seems like such a simple thing; yet I have known other widowed people who have kept the world at arm’s length because it could not offer them what they once had and lost.
And thus I discovered that if I could allow for my moments of weakness, I could find the strength to go on. What surprised me, however, was realizing just what the source of that strength was. I found that every time I was open to another person’s presence, or enjoyed another person’s company, or did something for someone else not out of obligation but from genuine feeling, that a little part of my love for Binyamina was present. My love had survived her death, and was looking for another way to express itself.
This is the greatest surprise in grief; that what at first seems the source of the worst pain, the love we still bear for the one we have lost, can become our greatest resource for survival and for rebuilding our lives. Our loved one may die, but our love does not. If we are afraid of the pain, or if we are greedy and hoard it all to ourselves in our shelter of the past, it will turn stale like yesterday’s manna. We may find ourselves withdrawing from the world, or becoming bitter and resentful.
Genuine love is spiritual and lives forever, but sometimes it must change its form. If we are willing to accept our loss, which simply means being willing to feel our pain, then we allow our love to change. Thus I would say to helping professionals and grief counselors: Do not be too quick to tell us we must withdraw our emotional energy from the old relationship in order to form the new. It is true enough that we must gradually loosen our ties to old relationships so that we can become ready to form new ones, but the love invested in the old relationships, if it was genuine, should not and will not disappear. We need it still to help push us forward at a time when we may wish only to withdraw and remain separated from the world.
Love is by nature expansive; it is the key to our survival and growth, and will move us along if we learn to listen to it and give it freedom. We can honor loved ones who have died by keeping our love alive and allowing it to help us form new loving relationships. Love is a creative force that sometimes will not allow us to remain in peace. Bereavement reawakens love with fierce intensity. It confronts us with a choice: to either let our love die, or allow it to transform and bring us back into the world.
When Binyamina died, I thought I would never love again. Like many widowed people, I had fantasies soon after her death of recapturing that love with another person, but to try to act on such fantasies is usually a mistake. I could not create a new major loving relationship right away; I was not ready. I needed the small moments through which my love could still express itself, but my love needed to be transformed so that it would no longer remain hopelessly attached to the past.
The gradual transformation of love helps us build a bridge from the past to the future. I now feel ready to love again, in a new way, with a new person. My love for Binyamina is not gone; it still inspires me to try to be a loving presence with others. It even enhances my new relationship, since it no longer holds on to the past, but has turned me toward the world.
Love, being spiritual, does not die. The pain of grief is excruciating, but one way of interpreting that pain is to see it as our love still trying to express itself. Let us be willing to feel that pain, not to try immediately to obliterate it, and the love within it may carry us in directions we could not have foreseen.