My father, Jerry Feldman, had decided he had had enough. After two weeks in a Chapel Hill, N.C., hospital, with terminal cancer and no quality of life left, he asked his palliative care physician to help him die. She removed his breathing support and ensured he had enough sedation to be comfortable. He was unbelievably brave.
“I will live on in you,” he said, to help comfort me.
That afternoon, as my mother and I held his hands while he slept, I remember suddenly noticing a stillness about him. I glanced over at his heart monitor. In a devastating instant, I realized that one of the pillars of my life was gone. It was Feb. 12, 2019.
As a dentist in Milwaukee for 40 years before retiring to North Carolina, my father had been comfortable with medical issues. As it turns out, he had remained in control of his care to that very last day. He did it his way, to paraphrase his favorite singer.
Now I was learning to grieve deeply in a way I had never had to before. For several weeks, I shed tears frequently, if only privately. But soon I took a play from my emotional playbook that I had used all my life when I encountered sadness: I made myself busy. Between work and social plans, I made sure there wasn’t much time to feel sad — or, looking back, to process my emotions.
That sadness was there, though, hidden just under the surface. For example, I couldn’t bring myself to go to Jewish services, even though I knew it would help the healing process. The reason: I was scared I’d break down and cry, since Judaism for me was so connected with my father.
In fact, even before his death, going to services had always been a door to my emotions. My favorite songs, such as Oseh Shalom (the prayer for peace), or the mourner’s prayer known as Kaddish would leave me overcome with emotion, although I’d always try to hide it. My father’s death only heightened that resonance.
Then the pandemic hit and so much of our lives moved online.
Ironically, the scourge of COVID-19 had one benefit for me, allowing me to reconnect with Judaism — via Zoom — in a way that felt emotionally safe. From my home in Washington, D.C., I rejoined the synagogue of my youth, Temple Sinai in Fox Point, mainly because of its thoughtful and insightful rabbi, David Cohen. From 800 miles away, I started regularly participating in Shabbat services, celebrating the sabbath.
During those online services, I could see into my fellow congregants’ living rooms, with their Green Bay Packers throws over their sofas. I thought: These are my people.
And the services did allow the flood gates of emotion to open. When they did, I simply turned off my camera and sobbed. It was cathartic.
I even placed a picture of my father and me — a favorite one from Mexico — next to my computer during services, as if to say, “You know what, emotions? I’ve always run from you, but you’re welcome here. Let’s be sad about Dad’s death. And let’s be grateful for his life.”
As I deepened my knowledge of Judaism as an adult, I realized how many Jewish services — including every Shabbat and most holidays — include the Mourner’s Kaddish. As Sarah Hurwitz notes in her book “Here All Along,” “Judaism makes it hard for us to deny the reality of our loss.”
These days, with the pandemic waning, Shabbat services at Temple Sinai are mostly in-person again, so I join via livestream on YouTube. That means I can’t see people’s dogs and cats, or their Packers gear. But I still spend an hour almost every Friday evening “in Milwaukee,” a ritual that’s become important to me.
This summer, I’ll probably join a synagogue in Washington as well, to be part of an in-person faith community. When I do, I’ll be bringing some transformational lessons learned. That includes the importance of embracing one’s emotions and of finding ways to do so that feel safe and comfortable.
It also includes the realization that it’s OK to show emotion in public. After all, if I saw someone tear up in synagogue, I’d immediately think, “I know exactly how you feel.”
My dad, in fact, would tear up when he felt emotion. And he lives on in me.
Andrew Feldman leads the Center for Results-Focused Leadership, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting practice focused on helping government agencies use evidence-based decision-making. Twitter: @AndyFeldman
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Far from Milwaukee, a son mourns with the help of an area synagogue