Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Beauty of What Remains by Steve Leder

The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift 
by Steve Leder
Published January 2021 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
As the senior rabbi of one of the largest synagogues in the world, Steve Leder has learned over and over again the many ways death teaches us how to live and love more deeply by showing us not only what is gone but also the beauty of what remains. 

This inspiring and comforting book takes us on a journey through the experience of loss that is fundamental to everyone. Yet even after having sat beside thousands of deathbeds, Steve Leder the rabbi was not fully prepared for the loss of his own father. It was only then that Steve Leder the son truly learned how loss makes life beautiful by giving it meaning and touching us with love that we had not felt before. 

Enriched by Rabbi Leder's irreverence, vulnerability, and wicked sense of humor, this heartfelt narrative is filled with laughter and tears, the wisdom of millennia and modernity, and, most of all, an unfolding of the profound and simple truth that in loss we gain more than we ever imagined.

My Thoughts: 
Ti, of Book Chatter, read this book for her book club and struggled to make herself pick it up to read a book about grief and dying. I'm so glad she did and that she recommended it to me. It was exactly the book I needed to help me with the grief of losing my mom. Like Ti, this one will be one of my favorite books of the year. I read this book only at home - it was inevitable that I was going to cry while I read it. 

Steve Leder may have spent his life as a rabbi, spending much of his time communicating with people. But putting that ability on paper doesn't always work. Leder, it turns out, is excellent at making readers feel exactly what I imagine those he tends to feel. Comfort, warmth, wisdom, humor, compassion. 

Much of the book is Leder's reflections on what he has learned from spending time with those who are dying, particularly people with whom he has been close. He wants readers to understand that the dying are not afraid. His other lessons for the family of the dying include: 
"Do not waste the rest of your loved one's life worrying about his or her death. Treat the person you love like the fully alive, fully human, fully beautiful person he or she is. Enjoy him or her for every good moment of every hour of every day. Assume your loved one can hear absolutely everything you are saying in his or her presence. She is alive, treat her that way. He is alive, treat him that way. 
Give an Academy award-winning performance despite your fears. The fears that dying people express to me at the end of their lives are fears about whether or not the people they love will be okay. Even if you have to pretend a little or a lot, you need to tell that person you love who is dying that you will be okay. [Say] We love you. We will take care of one another. You can rest. You can let go because you have taught us and given us everything we need to be okay when you are gone."

These particular lessons spoke to me. They brought me back to the final 24 hours of my mother-in-law's life. As she lay hours away from death, her family gathered around her bed, taking turns holding her hands, telling her how much we loved her and that she would soon be with her beloved Jack. But I took equal comfort in believing that she could hear the conversations in the room - the stories, the laughter, the comfort we offered each other.

After having sat more than a thousand dying people and their families over the years, Leder thought he knew what grief was but it wasn't until his own father died, after a ten year battle with Alzheimer's disease, that he really understood death and grief personally. Despite the fact that Steve Leder and I have almost nothing in common, this book felt personal for me, too. Again and again, passages felt as though they were written for me. 

While Leder can, of course, draw on his faith and belief in the afterlife to find comfort, I've struggled with that. "It is the impermanence of the body that has convinced me of the eternality of the soul. Physics tells us that energy never dies, it merely assumes a different form." Where faith fails me, the idea that there is a scientific explanation to believe that my mom is still with us is something I can believe in, an explanation for the signs I see, the presence I feel. 

"Grief is surprising. Not at first, when you are prepared for it to pick you up and slam you against the rocky shore, but later, in a month or two or ten. Anyone who think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line does not understand grief." Leder then goes on to recount a time when grief hit him unawares. This man understands, I thought. The other day I let my dad's phone ring through to the answer machine and it was my mother's voice on the message. I almost couldn't leave a message. 

I don't think I'm overstating it when I say that this is an important guide in how to live your life knowing that one day you will leave the Earth, how to prepare for death, how to help someone through it, how to comfort others. I checked it out from the library but I'll be buying a copy to own. A few years ago I would have thought it was odd to feel so strongly about a book about dying and then I read Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking, another book I checked out from the library and then bought. Both that one and this one have some of the most important lessons I've ever read. 

Thank you, Ti, for guiding me to this book and the comfort it gave me. 


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