Coping With Loss: Models To Consider


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            Let me begin this afternoon with a word of thanks. I have had the mitzvah opportunity of standing with many of you during your times of loss. This past year was our time to mourn, first with the death of my father, Edwin Loewy and then a few weeks later, my father-in-law, Justin Rosenfeld. My family and I most sincerely appreciated the outpouring of support, expressions of condolence and donations of caring.

On one occasion I was sitting with a congregant, who while dealing with her sorrow, was also consoling me. I explained to her that we all are served the same plate. It is just a matter of timing when it comes to us. This year was our time. The great challenge is how to cope. There are many approaches and sources from which we can learn.

On Rosh Hashanah morning I shared insights to be gleaned from the life of Abraham Lincoln by way of Doris Kearn Goodwin’s book, “Team of Rivals.” As she describes the life of Lincoln, along with the rivals, who would one day become part of his leadership team, there is a subtext of death and how it impacted upon each of the men. We can learn from them as we develop our own coping skills.

Salmon Chase of Ohio was Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, a brilliant financier who enabled Lincoln to fund the Civil War. We are familiar with his name, as in Chase Manhattan Bank. His father died when he was 9 years old and he went to live with a domineering uncle. There was always gloom in his life. It is reported that he simply did not know how to have fun. His father had died of a stroke following major financial reversals, so that fear of failure plagued Chase throughout his life.

Death continued to stalk Chase in adulthood. Between the ages of 25-44 he buried three wives. Granted, death in childbirth and other diseases was not unusual in the 19th century, it was still a lot for one man to handle. He accepted death as a burden, which weighed him down. An intense work ethic and a fixation on raising his daughter as a perfect woman and proper partner became his focus. He once said, “Death has pursued me incessantly ever since I was twenty-five … Sometimes I feel as if I could give up- as if I MUST give up. And then after all I rise & press on.” (p. 36) Never fully satisfied with his own accomplishments, the main solace he found was belief in a world to come for his loved ones. He coped by immersing himself in work and as a result in many ways was a bitter man. Wallowing in pain is not a foundation for healthy living.

Edward Bates of Missouri was Lincoln’s Attorney General. Like Chase, his father died when he was 11 years old and like Chase a belief in an afterlife brought him comfort. His father’s death impacted upon him as well, but not in the burdensome way of Chase. Rather, Bates was committed to provide and protect his family in ways that his father never could. Not having had a stable home as a youth, Bates delighted in his marriage to his wife Julia and was pleased to consider himself “a very domestic, home man.” While he led an active public career, home and family eclipsed politics as the main pleasure of his life. (p. 63) Bates coped with his early loss by creating the kind of life he would have liked as a child and by all accounts was highly successful.

Edwin Stanton was Lincoln’s Secretary of War. While he did not lose a parent at an early age, first his daughter died and then his wife, at the age of 29. His younger brother also met a tragic end. Dealing with his losses he withdrew from his world for months. Then somewhat like Chase, Stanton immersed himself in his work. Many claimed that the multiple deaths turned him from outgoing to gloomy. As a litigator he became very aggressive in court, intimidating witnesses unnecessarily and antagonizing fellow lawyers, as he did Lincoln. His primary pleasure came from his growing reputation and amassing of wealth. (p. 178) None of this would I describe as healthy coping skills.

However, he remained warm and tender towards his family and especially his son, who was 2 years old when his mother died. Realizing that the boy would have no real memories of his mother, Stanton wrote a letter of over 100 pages telling the boy about his mother, the kind of woman she was, details of the love that he had with her and more. Preserving memory is indeed a positive way to cope with loss.

And then there was Abraham Lincoln. His mother, Nancy Hanks, died when he was 9 years old. His older sister Sarah helped to raise him, but sadly, she too died at a young age. Then the love of his life, Ann Rutledge, died at the tender age of 22. Upon her death he fell into a deep depression. Unlike Chase and Stanton, Lincoln did not believe in a world to come. In truth he was not necessarily very religious at all. As a young man he confided to a neighbor, “It isn’t a pleasant thing to think that when we die that is the last of us.” There are those who suggest that all this loss at a young age provided Lincoln with strength and a deep understanding of human frailty.

Then came his years as President. The catastrophic loss of life during the Civil War weighed heavily upon him. He became a bit more philosophical as he came to embrace the idea that we live on through what we have done. As President, he often penned notes to families upon the death of a soldier. In one such message of condolence to a young girl he wrote, “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and to the young it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. And yet this is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable. I have had experience enough to know what I say.”

Indeed Lincoln had vast experience on the topic, losing his mother, sister and beloved at a young age. And like many others of his era, two of his children died as well. First was his son Eddie, who died of tuberculosis in 1850. At the time, his wife, Mary, was inconsolable, until she embraced a belief in an afterlife, but Abraham simply maintained a stoic attitude. He did find a measure of consolation in the belief that some part of us remains alive in the memory of others.

Their son Willie was born shortly thereafter. He was inquisitive and playful as he grew into adolescence. The White House became a big playground for him, until Typhoid fever snuffed out his life. Again Mary sunk into a deep depression, while Abraham deeply grieved, held onto the mementoes of the young boy’s life, believing deeply that the dead live on through memory. He would face difficult hours of loss and found comfort in looking at a picture Willie had painted along with a scrapbook he had maintained. Though surrounded by the death of war, the loss of his son caused him to relate to others during their times of loss in a more profound way. In that same letter I mentioned earlier, he wrote, “In time the memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.”

Ironically the day before his assassination Lincoln spoke of future life. Perhaps like many who begin to face their own mortality, the hope for a world to come came into his mind.

Friends, there is no one model guaranteed to help us cope with our losses. Each situation and individual is unique. No one philosophy will ensure solace. Looking at the exampless I have presented this afternoon we can learn positively and negatively from each. Certainly when death comes we are entitled to be sad, lost, even inconsolable. Hopefully that phase will pass with time. For some a belief in the afterlife provides great comfort. Please know that this path is open to us as Jews. While the rational founders of Reform Judaism tended to minimize the emphasis on concepts of afterlife, the belief in a world to come, open to the righteous of all people, is a strong part of Jewish tradition. I cannot tell you what that world is like or definitively that it even exists, but if that is a belief that provides strength and hope, I am not about to deny or demean that possibility.

Our friend Lincoln coped with his losses with what he knew and what we can confirm. Loved ones do live on in our memories and the impact of their lives resonates in the world in which they once lived.

As for me, I embrace all of the above. Though in my early years I rarely thought in terms of a world to come, I am now comfortably open to that possibility. I do not depend upon it, nor will I devote my life to reaching that end. Still, the traditional Jewish belief that our loved ones live on in ways beyond our knowledge provides a measure of solace and the hope of a future time of reconnection. And like Lincoln the gift of memory and the knowledge of lives well lived provides me with comfort, even as I continue to mourn.

At this hour of Yizkor, a time of sacred memory, may we learn from those who have gone before us as we hallow the lives of our loved ones.



This sermon is inspired by the speech of Doris Kearns Goodwin at the 2007 CCAR National Convention, based upon her book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.






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