Two Deaths, One Answer
After my brother died, I was frozen with grief—until author Harold Kushner helped me rediscover community
My grandparents told me more than once that “life is about suffering,” and that the better I got at handling it, the stronger my character would be. So I have never been one to ask why, let alone why me, when life gets tough. I have always understood that bad things can happen to all people in this chaotic universe, regardless of individual beliefs or accomplishments.
In other words, shit happens.
In June 2011, I received a phone call that would change my attitude. My father’s family was on a trip to Yosemite National Park when a semi-truck smashed into their car. My father, my stepmother, and my youngest brother escaped uninjured, but my 14-year-old brother, Eli, lay in a coma. He had been such a presence, with a brilliance that far surpassed his years, that I was confident he’d figure out a way to fix this, much like any other puzzle to which he set his mind. But his injuries were too severe. He never came out of the coma, and three days later doctors finally pronounced him dead.
Over the next year, I began to accept the reality that this was not a dream from which I would awaken. Eli was gone. I found little solace in that acceptance, though—no comfort in knowing that such an accident was common on that stretch of highway in Fresno, no relief in my intellectual understanding that there was never any safety net to keep those dear to me safe. Even with my rational grounding in the simple acceptance of that reality, it seemed an impossible challenge to figure out how to move forward with my life. Should I keep doing what I’ve been doing day to day, living in New York and working as an artist? Should I drop everything and move closer to the family in California? I felt lonely at home but knew I should stay and try to be productive; then I felt selfish for being far from the family and berated myself for that. I didn’t know what to do. I only knew that I was alone in my grief.
Then I met Harold Kushner, the famed author, and came to see things in a new way. Talking to him, I found that we had traveled similar paths: I’d lost my 14-year-old brother, he’d lost his 14-year-old son, and we were both grappling with our grief and searching for connection. Reading his books, I rediscovered community, learned to see God’s presence, and began to move forward again.
When my mother left the Soviet Union for America in 1988 to join her parents and her sister—who had gotten permission to emigrate the previous year after eight years as refuseniks—my father did not join her; they divorced, and he stayed behind in Kharkov. At age 2, I settled with my mother in Chicago, where her parents and her sister had moved. A few years later, my father and his new wife Katya moved from Ukraine to Israel with their new daughter and had two more sons. I barely knew anything about my father’s new family until he and I started exchanging letters when I was 10—his in Russian introducing me to his life and my siblings, and mine in English relating the charmingly banal interests of a preteen. Before long, I was visiting my father’s family on monthlong vacations, enjoying the novelty of getting to know them. Disregarding the dramatics that led to my parents’ split and his new life, I knew that my siblings—in Chicago, and in Israel—had become the most valuable treasures in my life.
In 2002 my father’s family moved to America—to Boise, yet. The time zones between me and mine were disappearing, and I couldn’t have been happier. I saw more of them at the warm home my father and Katya built. I accompanied them on family camping trips to various state parks, the weeks that I felt most comfortable during my awkward teenage years. That’s also when I grew closer to Eli.
They moved to San Diego, where a young Eli cultivated an impressive garden, cajoling fruiting trees and flowering plants from the earth. Eli oozed life from every pore, already envisioning and planning the sustainable farm he would live on with his wife, animals, and children—as many as his wife would let him have, he’d explain to the family. The realistic practicality with which he approached these dreams made us certain they would inevitably come true.
And he and I started to become real partners in crime: I started editing his school papers, and he became a trusted critic of my artwork. The fact that he believed in me and brought me up in art-class discussions on pop art motivated my work.
In 2010, I moved to New York, leaving behind my friends and family; within months, I unveiled my first exhibit on the East Coast at KGB Bar in Manhattan’s East Village. I pursued my individual success, quickly accelerating into my future as an artist in this urban jungle, feeling like a mogul on track to build an empire. It never occurred to me that it was the strong network of people in my life that was the foundation of all that inner strength, and I didn’t realize how powerless I could feel without it.
After the car crash in 2011, I made my way to California. I did what I could, helping my sister with decisions regarding the press that was eager to cover this local tragedy, inviting Eli’s schoolmates to the funeral, and arguing with the rabbi who insisted in his eulogy that “everything happens for a reason,” even if we don’t understand God’s motivation. I spoke at Eli’s funeral, addressing his peers, describing his lightness and urge to do good for others that would now be their responsibility to do on his behalf. Over the next days, friends filtered in and out with food, the unspoken language that expressed the comfort they wished to transmit. The only words that brought peace were when we told funny stories about Eli, a practice my father proposed, and that I admired.
I returned to New York on autopilot, unsure what to do. In addition to my job, I had made myself available to contribute to a range of art projects around the city, though I was finding that I could not meet them with the same animation I had before. I returned to California for a month to find comfort with family, even entertaining visions of going bicoastal for a while. But family dynamics were shifting, and it seems that I had idealized my ability to patch up a hole too big for any of us to fill. It would be a while before I realized that while it was true that I wanted to help strengthen others, I was the one who needed to find strong people with whom I could be vulnerable now.
It was not that I didn’t feel love for others; on the contrary, I had an abundance of undirected love that seemed to have been previously tied up in Eli. It was like I was walking around on Ecstasy at a rave where I was the only attendee, with nobody to give my love to. Seeing no direction to my daily routine, it scared me that I was starting to feel an alliance with the glassy-eyed cat ladies on the subway. I feared I was losing my soul.
A few weeks ago, I met Kushner while producing the trailer for his new book, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person. Kushner dedicated the book to his son Aaron, who died when he was 14 years old—just like Eli—of the rare degenerative disease Progeria. Since Aaron’s death in 1977, Kushner has been driven to do good in the world on his son’s behalf and to help others understand the nature of suffering. I broached this analogue in our losses in a brief conversation with Kushner, expressing my frustration of not knowing how to go on and how to relate to my father’s family after what happened. He recommended that I read his earlier book, the 1981 best-seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, not because I would find closure within it, but because it would put me on a track of questioning the universe productively.
In both books, Kushner explores the circumstances of the biblical character Job, whose faith was tested by God during a series of tragedies that befell him. I saw an important parallel to my own situation: The rabbi who played the “everything happens for a reason” card during Eli’s eulogy was making the same mistake that Job’s friends made when they came to comfort him after God killed his sons; Job’s friends, like this rabbi, might have looked like they were attempting to console Job, but they were actually more interested in defending God. Kushner argues that when the mourning father cries out, “Why did God do this to me?” he is not actually trying to find out God’s rationale, but rather affirm that he, the mourner, is indeed a good person despite being struck by such a tragedy. At that moment, the mourner does not need God per se; he needs a supportive community to rally around him.
While in When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Kushner describes God as limited in his ability to control natural disasters, asserting that God is moral and nature is not, he comes full circle in grappling with God’s limitations as self-imposed: It’s not that God is absent when tragedy strikes, it’s that he is found in strong community and other manifestations of comfort in tragedy’s aftermath. Without anthropomorphizing God as a bearded man in the sky, I suddenly could sense what God was all about. I now could see that it was important to visualize my own image of a perfect universe and what it would look like in this utopia where everyone was a good person providing community and strength to one another. It felt right to pursue God by way of allowing myself be vulnerable among a trusted community, instead of putting all of the burden of the pursuit of the good life on my being a professional rock.
After meeting Kushner and reading his books, I returned to Chicago to be with family and friends, and I felt different. I opened up in such a way that I realized, aside from a short stint in psychotherapy, I really wasn’t talking substantively with those I trusted about what happened to Eli. There was always an urge to make those who wanted to console me feel OK, like a goody bag: Thanks for coming to my pity party, your efforts were not in vain. But being vulnerable is not just OK, it’s necessary, and making efforts to find community one can trust before tragedy hits is crucial for survival after it hits.
The fact is, bad things happened to good people in June 2011: not just Eli, but his mother, his father, his siblings, and those who loved him and who love us. “Life is about suffering” may be a fine mindset for existing, but it is not satisfying as a way to live. Life isn’t merely about existing but about working through suffering—an impossible thing to do alone. These days, I find it hard to fault anyone for working through suffering by way of the belief in a higher intelligence. But that’s just not my style. I believe in God now, and I see the divine in the love of others.
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David Nahmias keeps a family tradition alive by making mahia, a Moroccan fig brandy, in America
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