Sunday, January 11, 2009

Making Sense Of The Senseless: Things Left Undone

First and foremost, I would like to thank everyone for your words of encouragement and support during this difficult time. They are appreciated more than words can say.


Several months ago, I had addressed an envelope to the wife of my cousin, preparing to send her a card of encouragement. I couldn’t imagine where she drew the strength to care for a sick husband and four young children. The day I went to send the card, my parents informed me that my cousin was doing badly, so I opted not to send it. The card had been in a drawer, and I had yet to write and send it. The morning my cousin died, before I had been informed of his passing, I finally wrote the card to his wife. But then my day got crazy and I wasn’t able to send it.

At first, I felt relieved that my lame platitudes, at what was really an awful time, had not been received. I felt that nothing I could say or do in such a time of uncertainty was enough. But as I started reading “When Bad Things Happen To Good People” by Harold Kushner, I realized that maybe such a card, telling my cousin what a strong and amazing person I think she is, is exactly what she needed.

In such times of despair and anguish, what is it that we really need to help us through? As much as I am broken up about the death of my cousin, I can only imagine the pain that his wife and children are feeling.

I don’t really feel like I’ve been endowed with the capacity to cope with something like this. I haven’t gotten dressed in days, and if I’ve had to, it has been with minimal effort.

To quote myself in an e-mail to a blogger friend, I wrote, “It’s funny how when you’re ill, you think you know all the right things to say – and then life presents a situation where you are powerless to make it better. It’s odd, too, because right now, lupus and RA don’t seem so bad. That’s pretty sick, isn’t it?”


A few years ago, after the death of a high school classmate, my mom suggested that I read, “When Bad Things Happen To Good People.” I refused. When I got sick, my mom found a way to sneak this book into my apartment. But it wasn’t until I was trying to process my grief over the death of my cousin that I pulled the book from my shelf to read.

As I peeled back the cover, my hands were shaking. Can a book induce fear just at the sight of it? Maybe it’s what the book contains that scares me – answers to a question that seems unanswerable. I don’t want to ask why because I don’t think that there is any answer that will be acceptable.


What has bothered me most about the death of my cousin is the suffering he went through, which ended up having the same outcome as if he would have refused treatment altogether. The other thing that gets me is the effect his death has on those he has left behind. So many good people… so much sadness… and no one deserved any of it.

When people in our lives, or ourselves, are senselessly struck down, it’s easy to question.

When I got sick, I turned my back on religion, partly out of anger, but mostly out of confusion. So you can understand my squeamishness at reading a book authored by a rabbi.


I would say that this is really the third (major) time in my life that I have had to deal with the passing of a loved one. When I was seven, my grandfather, my mother’s father, died unexpectedly. Just the week before, his doctor had given him a clean bill of health, and guaranteed him 20 more years of life. Just one week later, he was gone.

Before that, I don’t think I really understood death. My notions of it were confused and it was a harsh reality to face. Then, when one of my high school classmates died my senior year of undergrad, I had a really difficult time dealing with it. Again, there were so many things I didn’t understand. While we hadn’t spoken or seen each other since our graduation from high school four years earlier, I remembered her being one of those people who transcended groups. She literally was a friend to everyone. I was in her group for the fashion show for marketing class, and I remembered her bubbly personality. She died just a few days short of her 21st birthday. Why would she never get to celebrate that milestone? I began to think how unfair it was, all the opportunities in life she would miss. And of course, I wondered why. And now, as my life is touched, again, by the loss of a loved one, I wonder why the world can be so cruel.


Because Jewish law requires burial as soon as possible after a person dies, my cousin died early Wednesday morning and the funeral was held on Thursday. There was no way for me to arrange a ride to get home in time for it, but I wanted to.

I ended up going home for a few short hours on Sunday in order to pay my respects to his family. I was able to hold it together while talking to his mother and three brothers, but when I got to talk to his wife, I lost it.

There I was, in my cousin’s time of grieving, and she was comforting me, telling me that we would find the strength to get through this.

And I can only imagine that when friends and family leave, and my cousin’s children go back to school, that the realization of his death will finally hit my cousin’s wife. And I can only hope that she will find the strength she needs from those closest to her.


One line from “When Bad Things Happen To Good People” that really resonated with me was something early on: “[…] when we cry out to G[-]d in our anguish, G[-]d responds by sending us people” (xi).

As I have said often, illness (or any other difficult life passage) is a great way to weed out those who are not true friends. However, it is also a way of discovering who will be there no matter what.

“But, of course, we cannot chose. We can only try to cope [….] [and] the really important question is not why bad things happen, but where we will find the resources to cope when they do happen” (xiii, xiv).

And I think this is true of this blog. While I think we all attempt to answer the “why” question at one time or another, we are much more focused on what we can do to help ourselves and others cope with experiences that we have already had.

As I think about the fact that I have not had my diagnosis for a year, or that I have not been on all of my current medications for a year, I realize that as time goes on, the “why” piece matters less and less. Because it isn’t why we have to deal with the cards we’re dealt, but how we deal with the cards that is what really matters.


Beyond sadness inevitably lies fear. If a wonderful man, an adoring husband and father, a successful lawyer, one of kindest people you would ever want to meet, is taken away so tragically, it makes us realize that it can happen to anyone at any time.

In some ways, I feel like life is always about the cards we don’t send or the things we don’t say or do, until we realize that the window of opportunity has closed and we are no longer able to do them.

Unlike most of us, my cousin and his family had no financial strings. They had the power to seek out any doctor in the entire world. And still, there was nothing that anyone could do to change the situation. My cousin didn’t die from cancer. He died from radiation-induced dementia, a condition that can debilitate someone who has had high levels of radiation to their brain, depriving it of oxygen.

It really makes me think – and wonder – about whether the treatments we are presented with by our own doctors are really worth it. Do we really understand the risks? I think we understand percentages, but I don’t think we ever stop to consider that we might just be that 1% who is hurt more by the treatment than the actual disease.

But I don’t think drugs and treatment are an absolute. I think that at some level, in the back of our minds, we all have a point that we are willing to go to. And the one thing I can say about this situation is that I don’t think my cousin would have wanted to continue in the state he was in for an indefinite amount of time. But that doesn’t mean that he deserved cancer and to die, to never see his children grow up, to never live another day on this planet.


“Innocent people do suffer misfortunes in this life. Things happen to them far worse than they deserve – they lose their jobs, they get sick, their children suffer or make them suffer. But when it happens, it does not represent G[-]d punishing them for something they did wrong. The misfortunes do not come from G[-]d at all” (60).

In opposition to everything most of us have been taught, Kushner suggests that “sometimes there is no reason,” that even G[-]d is sometimes powerless to change situations (63). He goes on to suggest that when a plane crashes, we like to think that all of those people were cosmically connected somehow, and that those who were supposed to be on the plane and missed it by chance, were somehow better than those who were on the plane, but that this line of reasoning is completely untrue.

In some ways this is reassuring – that G[-]d does not will the tragedies of the world on people. On the other hand, though, if G[-]d is not responsible than who or what is?

Kushner further suggests that the events in our lives that anger and sadden us are the same events that anger and sadden G-d because “G[-]d finished His work of creating eons ago and left the rest to us” (75).

In some ways, it makes me feel better to know that all of the headlines I read each day with people killed here and there are random acts of violence. But if there is nothing controlling the universe, then how do we stop it from spinning out of control? Maybe the answer is that we don’t.

Lupus, cancer, and all of the other diseases in the world do not have consciences. They don’t pick their victims based on the moral worth of that person. They happen because the genetic conditions are ripe for them to occur. It’s not more complicated than that, although somehow, even understanding this explanation, we manage to complicate things by searching for answers to questions that no one can provide the answers to.


While Kushner doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear, the book is written in a gentle, almost soothing way. And it becomes obvious that the reason for this is because he has suffered, as well.

In some ways, Kushner’s conclusions are found wanting. We try to find meaning in situations where truly no meaning exists. We try to find words and actions for situations where our capacities as humans fail us. We are ever caught up in a cycle of suffering and coping, and we aren’t always good at doing either.

There are two lessons that I take from “When Bad Things Happen To Good People”. They aren’t as earth shattering as I had hoped they would be, but they do give me some sense of hope. The first is that sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we are unable to make sense of things. Sometimes there is no reason. But in the face of suffering, we are lucky if we have people around us to support us.

And maybe we get to see who people really are when they are faced with adversity. I feel like I have such a unique bond to my cousin and his wife because in their adversity, they let me in. They let me see them at their worst, and I think I actually got to see the best in them.
(Kushner, Harold S. When Bad Things Happen To Good People. New York: Schoken Books, 1981.)

1 comment:

  1. Firstly and most importantly, I am terribly sorry for your loss. Nothing anyone can say will make that better, only time will help to heal.

    As usual I found your writing and self reflection wise beyond your years. Death and illness are topics that are never easy to handle or find "answers" for. I am a religious person, so I take comfort in the fact that God has a plan, even when I don't know what the heck it is. I have lived long enough to see the good come from the bad. Most of all I find comfort in the trust I have that I am never alone or abandoned, no matter how I may feel at the moment.

    I think your last paragraph was so strong, where you state "and maybe we get to see who people really are when they are faced with adversity. I feel like I have such a unique bond to my cousin and his wife because in their adversity, they let me in. They let me see them at their worst, and I think I actually got to see the best in them." THAT'S exactly what I would say or write to your cousin's wife. She will find comfort in knowing you felt and still feel that way.

    I wish you healing from your grief and many years of happy memories of your cousin. You are all in my prayers.