Jane Ahlin: Rabbi's book still good primer for dealing with loss, tragedy

Here is the thing I'm entirely sure about: Bad things happen to good people.I hasten to add, it is no accident the phrase also parrots the name of one of my favorite books: "When Bad Things Happen To Good People." Written by Rabbi Harold Kushner ...

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Here is the thing I’m entirely sure about: Bad things happen to good people.
I hasten to add, it is no accident the phrase also parrots the name of one of my favorite books: “When Bad Things Happen To Good People.” Written by Rabbi Harold Kushner and first published by Schocken Books in 1981, the book was a personal response to the death of Kushner’s son Aaron at 14 years to a premature aging condition called “progeria.” For comfort, it’s a “go to” book for me.
As Kushner put it, his son’s “life made the book possible, and … his death made it necessary.” Kushner – a man of God trying hard to live a religiously committed life – had to confront his own notions of God’s will for people and how God acts in the world. In writing, Kushner strengthened his own faith and found better ways to minister to members of his congregation when they faced tragedy. The greater understanding he came to – understanding he was able to convey in simple language – makes the book a primer of sorts for consolation, not only for religious people but also for everyone striving to live moral and ethical lives.
I find myself returning to it whenever someone we admire and care for faces tragedy, as, sadly, happened last week. It’s not that Kushner has a magic formula for comforting the grief-stricken. And yet, he makes a great case for ways not to.
For instance, there’s the notion of what we deserve. Many years ago when I had a brief bout with cancer, a woman told me I didn’t “deserve” to have the disease. She meant her remark to be comforting, but I had to bite my lip to keep from replying, “Who deserves cancer?”
Kushner puts the kibosh on the idea that we get in life only what we deserve, particularly the notion that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. If that were true, how could we account for the number of good people afflicted with degenerative neurological diseases? How could we account for the deaths of innocents in war-torn countries? How could we account for victims of house fires or hurricanes? For that matter, how could we account for sicknesses, such as depression and addiction that result in death, particularly the deaths of good young people desperately trying to get their lives on track?
Another common attitude that Kushner takes on is the belief that tragedy and pain suffered by individuals are part of a detailed design for God’s work. Kushner uses the Thorten Wilder fictional example of a God-created great tapestry, a beautiful pattern on one side but on the other side, something of a mess, which “requires that some lives be twisted, knotted, or cut short, while others extend to impressive lengths, not because one thread is more deserving than another … imply because the pattern requires it.” Kushner disagrees with this and sees it as God imposing suffering and pain for cosmic art (unholy means to a positive end?). He says God’s real purpose is helping people bear suffering and pain, which are inescapable parts of being human.
Kushner doesn’t like equating human suffering of grief and pain with being taught lessons, either. (Yes, Kushner learned much during his son’s short life, but why should his son have had to suffer in order for Kushner to be taught a lesson? Does a child have to die being hit by a car in the street for the parent to learn a lesson about locking gates and supervising toddlers?) And Kushner is disheartened when a 15-year-old whose mother died heard a relative say God “needed her now more than he did.” The relative may have meant well, but the boy was angry at God and felt guilt that his mother might have lived if he’d needed her more.
If in Kushner’s words, “vulnerability to [sickness and] death is one of the given conditions of life,” what is our role when bad things happen to good people? Well, we show up; we comfort to the best of our abilities without pretending to have answers. As time goes by, we try to help the grief-stricken (and, frankly, ourselves) “live fully, bravely, and meaningfully in this less-than-perfect world.”

Ahlin, Fargo, writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email

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