By the time this article is published, it will have been over one week since a dear friend of mine, Barak Ben-Tor, passed away after a battle with cancer. Barak was an incredible person; a loving husband, father, brother and son to his family; and a wonderful friend to me and so many others. My column this week is dedicated to Barak’s memory, may his neshama have an aliyah.
Barak was ill for several years, but he remained resolute in his determination to battle the disease tooth and nail. Whenever a treatment proved unsuccessful, he moved forward in search of the next treatment, hoping it would prove to be the cure he needed.
I recall vividly one of our conversations in which Barak recounted a talk he had with a particularly dispirited (and dispiriting) doctor who gave him very negative news about his prognosis. Barak firmly told the doctor that he wasn’t going to accept the prognosis and that he was going to do everything he could to fight the disease.
In the end, Hashem had other plans, but Barak’s fight wasn’t for nothing. When a loved one passes away, we could cynically focus on the ultimate result (their death) and decide that their struggle to live was pointless in the end. But, this would be a tragic mistake because we would miss the beauty of what they gave us in the process.
During the years Barak fought his cancer, he continued to touch so many lives in so many meaningful ways, most importantly the lives of his wife and two children. Barak gave his children precious memories of their father. Just last year, Barak’s son had the opportunity to have his father by his side during his bar mitzvah. Barak’s younger daughter had the chance to forge important, loving memories of her father; memories of which she would otherwise have been deprived.
And, Barak’s loving wife Elana. I remember when they met. Barak had fallen head over heels for Elana. Over the last couple years, things were very difficult at times (how could they not be?!) as Barak and Elana strove to keep his cancer from defining their existence. But, as difficult as things were, Barak’s love for Elana was clear. On several occasions, Barak shared with me his frustration and regret over the ways in which his illness impacted Elana and their children.
During it all, even when he would become disheartened over a failed treatment, Barak’s sense of humor and spirit were inspiring. When the most recent Star Wars movie was about to be released, and then when it hit the theaters two months ago, Barak was thrilled (he was a huge Star Wars fan). As sick as he was, Barak was still a boy at heart in many ways and I think his boyish (and sometimes not-so-boyish) sense of humor was one of the things that drew people to him.
This isn’t to say Barak was always full of happiness and good cheer, even before his cancer was diagnosed. There was a cynical streak that ran through Barak. But, this is part of what made him human. Barak was genuine and real, and honest about his own personal pain.
In the wake of Barak’s passing, his loved ones are left to grieve his loss. Many people talk about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five-stage model of grieving in which she outlines the five stages that she said people go through when coping with the death of someone whom they care about. They are 1) Denial 2) Anger 3) Bargaining 4) Depression and 5) Acceptance.
Kubler-Ross eventually acknowledged that not everyone experiences the five stages in the same order. Moreover, research has since suggested that not everyone has to experience all of these stages in order to emerge healthily from the grieving process.
Grieving is a very personal experience and we shouldn’t be made to feel that we have to grieve the death of a loved one in a specific way. When we feel pressured to grieve in a particular way, we understandably may feel confused (“What’s wrong with me that I didn’t go through the denial stage?”), resentful (“How dare you tell me what I’m supposed to feel?!”), angry (“You have no right to tell me whether or not I’m mourning the ‘right’ way!”) and even more isolated in our pain (“No one understands what I’m going through!”). Rather, what’s most important is that we allow ourselves to grieve and that we are supported in our grief.
One of the beautiful things about the Jewish approach to mourning is its recognition that mourning is natural and healthy. Mourning is an important part of the process of both celebrating the life of the person we lost and of transitioning through our grief in a healthy way.
When we stifle our grief and push down our feelings, we try to disavow our hurt and pain. But, of course, the hurt and pain don’t simply disappear. They remain; buried, but still present and we continue to suffer in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. When we permit ourselves to grieve and we work through our emotional pain, we begin the healing process.
Alternatively, sometimes, grief consumes us whole, leaving us feeling as though we’re going to drown in our anguish and pain. It’s all too easy to feel this way and, in fact, in the moment, we may not want to feel anything else. When we’re so full of anguish over losing someone, perhaps the last thing we want to do is to try to not feel this way. In these moments, we’re not thinking about the wonder and beauty of the person we lost as much as the fact that we lost the person. In other words, our thoughts are depressed to match our feelings.
When we pay a shiva visit, however, part of the visit is to talk about the person who passed and to share all that was wonderful about them. Doing so helps us to not become stuck in our depressed thoughts and feelings, and it is a way to celebrate our loved one’s life.
So, I would like to end by expressing my deep sorrow in losing Barak, but to also acknowledge what a gift he was to those of us who knew him. Barak’s presence in our lives, particularly during the years he fought his cancer, was an incalculable blessing. All the while and in the end, Barak’s struggle with cancer was not only for himself, but for us too because we got to have him in our lives that much longer.
By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD
Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], at 201-406-9710 or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.