When it comes to writing about grief, perspective is often a liability.
Grieving is so smothering an experience that it’s almost impossible to conjure up from a distance. And yet so few people have the inclination or the presence of mind to document its intensity in real time. It’s no wonder that the best contemporary writing about grief — Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” and Meghan O’Rourke’s “The Long Goodbye” come to mind — were begun before scar tissue had time to form.
Eitan Fishbane, an assistant professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote most of his potent, poetic new memoir, “Shadows in Winter” (Syracuse University Press), in the five months after the death of his wife, Leah, who was 32. Leah, who was pregnant with the couple’s second child, died of an undiagnosed brain tumor just days after being rushed to the hospital with a debilitating headache. Their daughter, Aderet, was 4.
In a recent interview with the Forward’s Gabrielle Birkner, Fishbane discusses the decision to document his walk through grief, the books that provided solace in his darkest hours, parenting a daughter through the loss of her mother and finding happiness anew.
Gabrielle Birkner: What compelled you to compose a journal in the immediate aftermath of Leah’s death — and at what point did you begin to envision what you were writing as a book?
Eitan Fishbane: I was talking to an old friend at the shiva, and she knew that writing was always my outlet for processing emotion; she was already encouraging me to start writing about it. Initially, it was very much an emptying-out of the intensity of emotions. Then there was a growing desire to have other people read it. There’s power in witnessing — of having other people hold your trauma, hold your pain. Other people’s stories were very healing and comforting to me when I was in my weakest places. To know that another person has been to that unspeakable place is very powerful.
You write poignantly about how Aderet mourned her mother intuitively, through her words and her prayers, her songs and her artwork. What did bearing witness to a 4-year-old’s sorrow teach you about how children grieve?
A big part of how children process grief is through play and through their own artistic creativity — the drawing of pictures, the playing with sand tables. This imaginary world becomes a symbolic world for them. But I was, thankfully, able to see that children have, or at least Aderet has, an amazing emotional resilience. She is really able to savor joy in life in the same way that other little children do, while still processing the memories.
You dedicate the book to Aderet with the words “I will remember for you.” Does the responsibility of being your daughter’s memory, her link to her mother, weigh heavily on you?
In some ways, that dedication reflects the weight of what it is to parent a little child through loss. I am one of the primary bearers of those memories that, inevitably and tragically, she has only preciously few of. So it’s a heaviness and it’s also an incredible gift. I’m grateful that we live in a digital age, that we have some video that survived all this, that she’ll almost be able to see and hear her mother.
Did the works of other writers who have tackled life after loss provide any comfort or inspiration for you?
For a long time, those kinds of books were the only ones I had any real desire for. I found Earl Grollman’s “Living When a Loved One Has Died” to be very authentic to the emotion of it; I found Donald Hall’s short book of poems, “Without” .…and Mark Doty’s book of poems, “Atlantis,” to be very powerful. C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed” and Joan Didion’s book “The Year of Magical Thinking” were very significant. But I connected more to Hall and Doty, because of their attempt to connect the power of emotion through lyricism.
Leah died in March 2007. How long after that did it take for your appetite for other reading, for other intellectual pursuits, to come back?
It was a very powerful experience to come back that fall to teaching — to stand again before a group of students and try to enter back into that world of spirituality and ideas that drew me into teaching and writing, and still sustain me. It was a slow process of transition, but teaching was able to reconnect me to those ideas. And I actually have another book coming out this fall, called “The Sabbath Soul,” about Hasidic mystical reflections on Shabbat. My father made the observation that “Shadows in Winter” was my Kaddish for Leah, and “The Sabbath Soul” was an attempt at a kol mikadesh [spiritual sanctification], or a Kiddush — representing a return to my spiritual and theological creativity.
“Shadows in Winter” is about your walk through grief — and only in the afterword do you write about your life since those initial dark weeks and months. But you’re now remarried [to Rabbi Julia Andelman]. Was it difficult to give your heart over again, after experiencing such a sudden, tragic loss?
Giving your heart over again is very uplifting, but it’s also a very vulnerable thing. It’s a great blessing to find love again, and still that doesn’t mean that the past is erased. All of it makes me the person that I am. Julia has, in a deeply loving way, embraced Aderet, and Aderet is a happy little girl who is well adjusted to a new family structure. Part of what I hope is communicated in the afterword is that there is survival and there is hope and there are positive new beginnings after very dark times.
Gabrielle Birkner is the director of digital media at the Forward and edits the women’s issues blog, The Sisterhood, on forward.com.