Rabbi Sam Bregman: Coronavirus killed my rabbi, best friend and mentor – I join too many mourning a loss

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The people sadly killed by the coronavirus – more than 177,000 confirmed around the world, including over 45,000 in the U.S. – all touched and enriched the lives of many more people who now struggle with their loss.

Many of us have lost relatives, role models, close friends and mentors without the chance to say goodbye. This is one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the pandemic. Caregivers and family members are not able to be present at the bedsides of the sick and dying.

Under normal circumstances, we are generally afforded the opportunity to say goodbye to those we love, to hold their hand and pay our respects at their gravesides – as well as to hear a message of faith and hope in their passing.

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC FORCES FUNERAL HOMES, MORGUES INTO THE FRONTLINE FIGHT

We are typically able to gather together, to remember those who link us to previous generations, and feel that last bit of connection to those who serve as our bridge to wisdom, family tradition and more.

When life follows a proper order of events we have some warning before a parent, family member, religious leader, or mentor slips away. This enables them to give us their final instructions and directives for the future before they leave this world.

Those of us left behind have a chance to prepare our hearts and minds for their passing. Grief is never easy on the mind, body, or spirit – whether one prepares for it over time or it sneaks in suddenly as a thief.

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Yet, under normal circumstances, time does afford us the opportunity for slow acceptance of the loss to come. But COVID-19 – the disease caused by the coronavirus – has been a cruel thief for both the deceased and those who long to bury the dead and process their grief in a way that feels normal.

I am one of far too many of people who suffered a loss to this disease. I lost my own rabbi, my best friend and mentor to COVID-19 at the beginning of this month.

His name was Rabbi Aharon Walkin, of Lakewood, N.J. He was widely regarded as a renowned Torah scholar, leader, and beloved mentor of men in the Jewish community.

Rabbi Walkin’s sudden and unexpected death at the age of just 54 from this dreaded illness cruelly plunged tens of thousands of students and admirers into intense mourning.

Grief is never easy on the mind, body, or spirit – whether one prepares for it over time or it sneaks in suddenly as a thief. 

Regrettably, growing numbers of people are going through such grief for victims of the coronavirus. I have logged onto Facebook and seen people I personally know posting that their mother or father – or a grandparent with whom they were tremendously close – has just passed away.

On top of this, the limitations on travel – coupled with fact that funerals cannot have more than 10 people and have to be watched on Zoom or another video platform – have poured salt on our wounds and denied us closure.

I believe many people are feeling a leadership gap and loss right now, but this hasn't been part of the national dialogue so far.

Because the resounding call of the hour is primarily to stay alive and flatten the curve of COVID-19, I believe that when this pandemic is all over, the gravity of these losses and the uniqueness of them will begin to wash through our nation like slow rolling waves.

According to the Jewish tradition, no one is perfect. But when we have a mentor or older sage or relative to look up to, that person gives us a semblance of what a more-perfected person is supposed to look like. This enables us to know what we ourselves can build towards and possibly become.

However, with the sudden loss for many of us of our mentors – familial or otherwise – many of us are at risk of backsliding in our climb towards self-improvement and refinement of character.

The Talmud (Makkos 10a) explains that one’s spiritual mentor is a literal necessity for life, and that (Kiddushin 66b) the severing of the teacher-disciple relationship is akin to separating from life itself.

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I will miss my mentor, Rabbi Walkin, very much because he was such a person. He was someone that you knew –from reputation alone – with enormous character and wisdom. The loss of Rabbi Walkin has changed me.

Like a mountain that was once there – but has suddenly disappeared from the horizon – so has one of my greatest influences. Once you got close to a person like him you realize the true size differential between a man like him and yourself, and how much further yet you still had to climb.

You often hear people refer to life after loss as their “new normal,” and it’s clear that losses caused by the coronavirus have certainly created a new normal for those who will forever grieve – not only the loss of their loved ones, but because their ability to properly mourn was stolen too.

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COVID-19 has left a unique psychological wound on the hearts, minds and souls of people worldwide. May we remember those who suffer during this time, and pray for their countenance to be lifted up in spite of their great suffering.

These days when I go indoors and can take off my mask I feel the searing pain of my sudden loss. And this awful pain is worsened by the terrible realization that I’m far from the only one grieving.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE BY RABBI SAM (SHLOMO ZALMAN) BREGMAN