In last week’s column, I published a letter written by a tormented widow who agonized over what more she could or should have done for her terminally ill cancer-stricken husband. Her agonies were many: In retrospect she felt that, at the first sign of illness, she should have insisted that he consult with a specialist rather than with their local internist. She also felt guilty about the hospital she chose for his post-surgical treatment. In short, she questioned everything she did regarding his care.
Additionally, she felt lost and alone. Her husband’s demise left a hole in her life and she couldn’t find a place for herself anywhere. One of her daughters suggested that she move in with her and even offered to build her a private apartment in her house. She wondered whether it would be wise to take her up on her invitation – she was especially concerned because, whenever she visited for Shabbos, she could hardly wait to get home. In short, she is troubled and can’t find peace. The following is my reply:
I fully sympathize with you and understand your torment. Most of us who lose a loved one go through this trauma. We second-guess ourselves with “I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve” but truth be told, such speculation has no place in Judaism. We know that life and death are in the hands of Hashem, and if He charges the Angel of Death to act, there is no gate, no matter how tightly bolted, that he cannot penetrate. On the other hand, if Hashem commissions him to retract his sword, a man can survive even under the most terrifying and hopeless circumstances.
If you have read my books, if you have heard my lectures, you know that I base everything I say or write on the wisdom gleaned from our Torah, so let us see where in the Torah we can find a teaching that will shed light on your dilemma and serve as an example for you to follow.
If there was any one person among our Torah giants who would have been justified in flagellating himself with questions of “If I would’ve,” it was surely the patriarch Abraham. The story is familiar to all of us. Time and again, Abraham was tested, but his tenth test, in which G-d commanded him to “take his son, his one and only son, his beloved Isaac and bring him up as an offering” was the most trying and severe of his life. The patriarch passed this test with awesome faith, love, and devotion, and returned with his precious son Isaac at his side.
But no sooner did he arrive home than another painful test challenged him. In his absence, his beloved wife, Sarah, was called On High.
One can only imagine the questions that could have tormented him, the thousand-and-one “ifs” that could have plagued his mind and heart. Abraham however, was at peace, and when he eulogized Sara, the word “livkosah – wept” is written with an extra small “chaf,” testifying that he accepted that this was the Will of G-d.
The passage itself is further proof of G-d’s Providence, for it is written: “Sarah’s lifetime was 100 years, 20 years, and seven years – these were the years of Sarah’s life.” The words, “these were the years of Sarah’s life,” appear to be redundant and superfluous since we already know that she lived to 127. They are there, however, to testify that our matriarch, Sarah, did not die before her allotted time, that indeed, those were the years designated for her life.
To be sure, she was shaken and traumatized by the ominous news revealed to her by the Satan who announced that her beloved son Isaac had died, but no matter what the Satan may have said, if G-d had wanted her to live longer, she could have survived. If
G-d so wished, He could have fortified her with strength and blessed her with more years, but this was the day destined for her to depart and return her soul to G-d. Thus, the repetition of the words, “these were the years of Sarah’s life.”
Undoubtedly, it may appear that the immediate cause of her death was the news of the sacrifice of Isaac, but that which the human eye sees does not reflect the full picture. As a matter of fact, some of our sages teach that with her last breath Sarah Imeinu blessed G-d for having granted her the privilege of raising a son who was capable of rising to such a kiddush Hashem So again I remind you that just as Sarah died because that was the day that G-d designated for her to return her soul, so every man dies in his or her appointed time.
It is futile for you, dear friend, to torment yourself with could’ve, should’ve, would’ve. No one can outsmart the Angel of Death. He knows the address of a person and he knows how to unlock even the most formidable gates. When G-d sends him on a mission, no one can escape him.
As for your questions regarding the doctors, here, too, it is foolish for you to second-guess yourself. I have seen prominent specialists make mistakes – if G-d wills it, the eye doesn’t see and the hand fails, and this holds true in every area of life. So, instead of agonizing over what you should or could have done, why don’t you concentrate on all of the things that you did do? Think of the joy and the shalom bayis that you shared, the zechus (merit) that you had to be at his bedside during his final journey and the loving care that you imparted to him.
There are many couples who never experienced this – who lose their spouses and have few positive memories to look back upon. Instead of loving recollections, their memories are full of mean, hurtful words, bickering and contentiousness. They have much to regret and carry many painful scars that give them no peace. So count your blessings and thank G-d that you are not among those unfortunate ones.
Instead of brooding, do something positive to elevate your husband’s neshamah. Intensify your prayers, participate in Torah study, join chesed programs and if you have the means, make dedications in his memory. In this way, you will not only elevate his neshamah, but you will elevate yourself as well.
You question whether you should accept your daughter’s generous offer to build you an apartment in her house and move in with her. Time and again, I have shared with parents who are widowed the sage advice of my saintly father, HaRav HaGaon Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt’l: “If at all possible,” he would say, “it is best for widowed parents to maintain their own home. Yes,” he would add, “go to visit your children, but even as it is good to visit, it is good to have a home to return to – a home that is your own.”
May Hashem comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem and may you find meaning, peace and blessing in your life.