The most famous Psalm, 23 has a place in my heart for all the obvious reasons. Jews - at least, Reform Jews - don't recite many Psalms. There's a specific one for each day of the week, and that's about it. Psalm 23 gets trotted out for funerals, when people are literally walking "through the valley of the shadow of Death." We're pros at grieving, my people. And by "my people", I mean two things.
I'm frequently asked how I cope with all the tragedies of farm life. Severe injury, accidents, the failure of a crop, financial loss, and of course untimely death - all these are regular occurrences. Farmers and ranchers laugh or shrug it off, and the longer we farm, the less we speak about it. While making light of losses may seem callous to non-agrarians, it's one of the most powerful tools we have for our own survival. I've heard (or said) excuses like:
"If only people knew that we laugh because we've already done our crying."
"If I didn't laugh about it, I'd be crying all the time."
"I have come to accept that these things happen. I'm powerless, so I have to let it go."
"If people knew how much we love them, they wouldn't begrudge us dealing with it however we can."
"If I couldn't find a way to laugh, I couldn't do this anymore."
Jewish tradition has very specific rules about death and grief, designed to shield the griever from public scrutiny in their darkest hours and draw them back to public life when it's appropriate. The Sages say, "It is loving too much when one dies of it." For every lamb we lose, there are 80 more faces on the farm clamoring for our attention, our love, our energy. That's not to say the one doesn't matter, only that weighed against the surge of other lives, our grief must take a back seat. So who shepherds the shepherd?
Yesterday was Yom Kippur. There's a memorial service in the late afternoon called Yizkor, open to everyone but focused on guiding the bereaved through the catharsis of memory and grief. We grieve as a community, in a sacred space free of judgment, where no one is singled out because everyone has lost someone. This, I found, is my key to finding peace in the face of overwhelming, uncontrollable forces.
Since last Yom Kippur, when I was more focused on my wedding than my farm, we lost:
Leeloo to hypothermia
Cappuccino to old age
Nutmeg to double prolapse
Coco's stillborn lamb
The white headed duck hen and her clutch of ducklings
14 of Mama Duck's first clutch
The old white hen
The first chick
I remember the stillborn lamb, which wasn't still, but I don't think there's any other name for it. I, the shepherd, calmly eating breakfast while keeping an eye on Coco, certain that if anything were amiss, I'd be more than capable. Coco, confused and bleating, the tiny perfect form, born too early, its heartbeat visible under a perfect coat. Trying, trying, trying, and losing. Walking back to Coco with no comfort to offer, no explanation, watching her struggle to find sense or peace. They grieve, and that deepens our grief.
I remember finding Nutmeg in the middle of the pasture in the hot sun, her desiccating uterus stretched out behind her, and tiny black Will tip-toeing from the bushes where she'd hidden him. I remember coming home from the store to find Alex finishing her grave, drenched in sweat and rain. Putting her out of her misery was necessary, was a good deed even, but difficult just the same. He never really talked about it. I grieve for them both.
I remember Purl, the senseless violence that ripped our leadersheep from us all. The flock still hasn't settled on a new leader. We haven't even been paid for that loss, let alone finished coming to terms.
Career farmers don't usually cry. I'm getting there; sometimes I cry for a couple of minutes, and I'm on to the next task. Sometimes I well up every time I think of it, no matter how long it's been. Sometimes, like with the old white hen, we shrug and bury her, and really never give think on it again.
Yizkor shepherds us through memories. Yesterday I gave myself over to that power which keeps us alive, so long as someone living thinks of us. Tears rolled down my face as the communal recitation of Psalm 23 washed over me. The still waters of grief breached my emotional dam as I recalled and bid farewell to each of our lost friends. I gave thanks for their lives, for the time we shared, for those still in my care and the blessing of being able to have this life. And that process, friends, is what restores my soul.
I'm sure there are people who would criticize my using a service meant for HUMAN loved ones to mourn the passing of mere animals. Are animals any less loved, or deserving of love? Consider that my actions brought most of them into the world, that nearly every animal in my care has a name, and is known to me by voice. (I stopped naming the chickens because the ones I loved best got eaten first.) How can I not grieve for my friends, my partners, my family? How can I not honor their brief lives, though they have four legs or feathers? That accomplished, I return to life and work and laughter, hopeful for a good year.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want to be anything else. My sheep and I lie down in green pastures, sometimes I fish them out of the still waters, the memories restore my soul.