As a rabbinical student, Joseph Krakoff noticed how often people had trouble comforting others after a death.
“With all good intentions, they’d say things that could hurt more than help. Like: ‘He’s in a better place.’ Or ‘At least you had her for 80 years.’ The truth is no matter how long you’ve been with someone, you still want them by your side.”
Joseph became a rabbi and practiced at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, MI, for 16 years. In the last 3 years, he changed focus. He’s become senior director of Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network.
While still a rabbinical student, Joseph did a hospital chaplaincy rotation at Sloane Kettering. After class training and shadowing a chaplain for several days, he felt “ready” to visit patients on his own. “The first patient I visited had just been diagnosed. Minutes before, the doctor told her she had less than a week to live. Here I was—the rabbi who was supposed to have something brilliant to say to help in her distress. Yet I was clueless. I wanted to run out of her room.
“But I sat there, for 3 hours, as she told me her story. Not only did I learn about this amazing woman’s life, but I learned there are no magical words that will heal a person’s body or heart. It is only our presence, our sincere caring and our authentic listening that can help heal their soul.”
After, Joseph wrote a poem about grieving. When he became a rabbi, and later a representative of hospice, he sometimes shared it. He noticed it seemed to bring comfort.
Years later, Joseph met psychologist turned artist Michelle Sider. Both were in Israel on a Jewish Welfare Federation trip of teachers and doctors. Michelle taught art at the Frankel Jewish Academy in W. Bloomfield, MI. (Joseph’s daughter Atara and son Micah would someday be students in Michelle’s class.)
Michelle had suffered losses of her own. Her older sister Sheryl had died of a sudden heart attack at 36. “I never said goodbye to my sister,” she says. Trained as a psychologist, she’d worked with many children who died from cancer. “Joseph’s poem grabbed me,” she says. “I realized I’d had so many losses.” She suggested turning the poem into a book with her illustrations.
And so began a 3-year project of re-writing the poem in brief lines which lent themselves to artistic images. In the end, Michelle became collaborator and co-author of, Never Long Enough—Finding comfort and hope amidst grief and loss. The book, Michelle says, “helps people slow down in the grieving process. It takes them through the emotional work that’s involved.”
Psychologist Gretchen Schmelzer agrees. In her book Journey Through Trauma, she writes, “In our everyday life we are so busy moving on to the next task or the next interaction… that it can feel like we never finish one thing before starting the next. A mindful goodbye allows you to fully absorb your experience.”
Joseph says, “Too often people wait until 1 or 2 days before they enter hospice to start dealing with relationships. A sense of honesty overtakes them at the end of their lives. The book can be useful for people doing their own life review. It helps to heal the spirit.”
But, Rabbi K. cautions, there is no cure for loss. “Loss is loss. There’s no replacing important feelings. Most of us will be dealing with loss for the rest of our lives.”
Joseph thinks the best way to support someone suffering from loss is to “give them a hug or hold their hand. Being there establishes an emotional connection. It helps a mourner feel comfortable they can explore their feelings with you. After, they won’t remember your words. They’ll remember how you made them feel.”
The co-authors convey a compassionate message with no specific reference to religion or God. Joseph says, “The book crosses boundaries of race, religion, sexual orientation, age. We speak to the universal human experience of grief and loss, comfort and hope.”
Images illustrate emotions. They’re rendered in black and white through the painful observation: “The truth is that life is never long enough.” One image is particularly “gut wrenching” for Michelle. Her elder son Josh, 23, was leaving to join the army. She snapped a photo of him hugging his brother, and drew it to illustrate the line “one more hug.”
“None of us is guaranteed tomorrow,” Michelle says. “But our whole family fears the possibility of losing a child to war. It’s as though we’re under a looming cloud. We make sure every phone call ends with ‘I love you.’”
Toward the end of the book, color appears to illustrate the thought “Yet I will forever be thankful we had each other.” Blank pages provide space for “Memories & Reflections.”
Published by Read the Spirit, Never Long Enough is already being used by hospice workers, counselors and funeral homes to help clients cope with their feelings and encourage crucial conversations.
Thanks for sharing your souls with us, Joseph and Michelle. And for helping our souls to heal.
Care to meet the authors in Michigan?
On Oct. 24, the authors will conduct a seminar on grief and book signing at Rev. Ken Flowers’ Greater New Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit. On Nov. 5, at 1:30, they’ll speak at the Jewish Book Fair at the W. Bloomfield, MI Jewish Community Center (JCC). Books will be for sale at the JCC Book Fair and are available at House on Main in Royal Oak, MI, Book Beat in Oak Park, MI, plus the Amazon and Barnes & Noble online bookstores.