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Finding Your God's Work: The Gift of Loss

When my father died in 2006, I spent six months in a place that felt unbalanced, out of sync, and unsettled. I needed to sit with the feelings I was having and be present with the opportunity that grief had offered me.  It's baffling to me that today an entire decade has passed since my father's death. The journey and life lessons that have come from this loss, and other losses since, have forever changed me.

We all have times in our lives when we feel this way. These feelings can be brought on by a divorce, a job ending, a medical challenge, or a death. When we are called into these times, I see it as an invitation to open ourselves up to our inner voice. To listen to what is important to us. We hear story after story of people discovering what is really important in their lives at a time of difficulty.

In the spring of 2006, when my father called to tell me he'd been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, I was stunned. They'd given him less than a year. Leading up to his diagnosis, we'd had a tumultuous relationship.  I often found myself acting like a teenager despite the fact that I was a married woman, a mother, and in my late 30s. The day my father told me he was dying, I knew that if anything was going to change for us it had to happen immediately. There wasn't going to be another chance. I flew across the country to be with him for a long weekend. The next eight months were a profound gift. A chance to heal old wounds. I remember him asking me, “Why did we wait until I was dying to do this?” Now, I believe it was only in that time of grief that the healing could have taken place.  My father died on December 1, 2006, my son's sixth birthday.

I was overwhelmed by the amount of grief I felt after his death, and I took a “spiritual sabbatical” to be present with this major loss and grief. I journaled, meditated, and attended synagogue frequently. A few weeks later, I woke up in the middle of the night with a simple thought: I wanted to perform 1,000 mitzvahs in my father's memory. Mitzvah is the Jewish word for a good deed and there are “613 official mitzvot” that Jews are commanded to perform. My intention was to perform 1,000 acts of loving kindness, “gemilut hasadim,” as a proactive way to work through the pain and loss that I felt in my father's absence. 

This decision led me to a project where I focused on being of service to the world.  As a result of this shift in focus, I began to find a new energy and direction. I began to heal the places in my life that most needed healing.

When my book sharing this journey, 1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire and Change Your Life, came out in 2011, I was scared. I hadn’t written the book to make money or to brag; I had decided to chronicle my journey after a rabbi encouraged me to share what I had learned and to offer a reminder of the healing power of generosity, that even the smallest actions make a difference. Ideas are meant to be shared, and when the book came out I hoped that others might copy my idea.

Despite the positive reviews and speaking opportunities that ensued, my favorite stories of the book’s impact are about individuals who used the idea of 1,000 mitzvahs and then found a way to share it with others. One school counselor, created her own “1,000 Drops of Kindness” campaign at her public elementary school. One Jewish high school did 1,000 mitzvahs in a day with their student body. One 10-year-old girl started her own blog about her own 1,000 mitzvahs. One mom decided to give my book out to the 100 families attending her daughter's bat mitzvah. She hoped my book would inspire them, as it had inspired her, to be present and more involved in doing daily mitzvahs. A teacher who shared my book with her fourth and fifth graders created a book before the end of the school year recording their “mitzvahs.” I was the guest of honor at their “book launch.”

My father's death and the 1,000 Mitzvahs project began a journey I could never have foreseen a decade ago. This profound experience has blessed me in so many ways. I have always been grateful for that night when I heard a small voice inside and took action. Over the years, I've heard my father's voice, too, or he has come to me in my dreams to provide encouragement. Time does ease our grief and hopefully, if we are open to them, unexpected journeys and lessons come from these challenging and difficult losses. The lesson I learned is that when we connect to that small voice within us and the gift we have to share with the world, we are doing our god's work.

Be still, be brave, and listen for your god's work today. The world desperately needs it!

Topics: Memoirs
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How to cite this page

Linda Cohen. "Finding Your God's Work: The Gift of Loss." 1 December 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 25, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/finding-your-gods-work-gift-of-loss>.

Linda Cohen, with father, in Vermont.

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