A Tragic Accident Begs the Question, Why?
Rabbi Cohen shares the life lessons Jenni Geren left behind.
Editor's Note: This is a guest piece written by Rabbi David Cohen of Congregation Sinai for the funeral for Jenni Geren, which was held Wednesday afternoon.
Wednesday afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving, I conducted a memorial service for Jennifer Lily Geren, a vivacious, fun-loving, bright, expressive and creative young woman of 15, who, with her classmate Halee Fischer, died in a tragic accident early Saturday morning.
As a parent of four current Nicolet students, there are a few things I’ve come to understand over the past four days.
The first is about the power of words. From the moment word of the accident got out, people wanted to know what happened. Curiosity and concern led to rumors and innuendo. People pointed fingers in blame. Like the game “Telephone,” stories mutated. Any truth they contained was soon overwhelmed by inaccuracy, conjecture and exaggeration.
In truth, we will likely never know exactly what happened. And in truth, it really doesn’t matter. Nothing will bring Halee and Jenni back. And while words have conveyed hurtful rumors, they can also be instruments of healing. To be with each other, to share stories, to listen deeply to each other – those are the words that now matter most.
Beyond the power of words to hurt and to heal, I’ve learned that sudden death makes it difficult to have perspective. The relationships we have with others are dynamic and constantly changing; the person we are friends with one minute is the same person we might have a fight with, a minute later.
The suddenness of Jenni and Halee’s deaths freezes those relationships in time. It makes us ask: when was the last time I saw them? What were we doing? What did we say? Did we part as friends? Or were we mad at each other? If I had known that was the last time I was going to be with her, would those have been the last words I would have wanted to say? Or, as someone wrote in indelible ink on the telephone pole that is serving as an improvised memorial: “I just wish our last words weren’t 'I hate you.'”
Even as we hope to remember Jenni and Halee not for the circumstances of their tragic death, but rather for the miracle of their 15 years of life, we should try to understand that our last words with them were just that – the last of many words and conversations stretching over time. And just as friends get angry and make up, what matters is the quality of the entire relationship we had with Jenni and Halee, not just the last few minutes.
In addition to learning about the power of words, and the importance of gaining perspective, I am left struggling with the question “why.” We don’t know why some teenagers make a bad decision and emerge unscathed, or get caught and learn a lesson, while others never get the chance. We don’t know why some parents and grandparents get to escort their child down the aisle to be married, while others must consign the fruit of their love to an early grave.
In my experience, the truth is that we don’t know the answer to the question why. We don’t even know if there is an answer. And if there is, we don’t know if we’ll every get to find it out.
One thing, however, we know for certain: Jenni and Halee’s death compels in us a choice. We can allow death to defeat us and deprive our lives of pleasure and meaning. Or we can resolve to wring out and savor every drop of life’s sweetness. We can yield to despair or somehow, despite everything, maintain a sense of direction and purpose. We do not have the answer to the question why, but we do have each other. And we can love and nurture and comfort each other even though we, ourselves, are broken.
What do we do now? We tell each other the stories of how Halee and Jenni touched our lives. We laugh and cry and hold each other and cherish the memories. And even though they are gone, we can see to it that whenever we walk through a door, they walk through it with us.
How can we do that? By learning and living the lessons they taught us through their lives, which for Jenni include the following:
- To live life fully each and every day.
- To be quick with a hug and a smile.
- To dream big and think seriously about the future.
- To add “awesomeness” to every group we’re in.
- To never take our families and loved ones for granted.
Go home and hug your spouse and your children. Tell your parents and siblings and friends that you love them. Consider how empty our lives would be without them and let us reorder our lives accordingly.
If we do these things and continue to do them in the months and years ahead, then Jenni and Halee will be alive in us and continue to bless the world with their presence. I hope we have the wisdom and the strength to do so.