This is what you say to a Jewish person who is recently bereaved – either in the days following a death or on the anniversary of the death of their mother, father, brother, sister, son or daughter. I don’t think close friends, cousins, aunts or uncles apply, no matter the sense of loss.
The reason I say this is because I have never felt comfortable with the phrase. When my parents died, people expressed these words to me – I guess, it is a useful filler when you don’t know what else to say… potentially more meaningful than, ‘I’m so sorry,’ or, ‘he was too young,’ or other such platitudes.
Interestingly, it is what the very words mean that causes me the greatest challenge – ‘I wish you long life,’ does this suggest, when your relative has died, the other person is wishing that you live a long time, now that the other is gone? No matter the quality of that remaining life, whether filled with sorrow or grief? And, what about the person that died; whether they had a long life or not, where does that enter the equation?
I can remember when I was 14 at school in Israel going with my headmaster Moshe and other classmates to visit the family of a soldier who had been killed in action – I don’t remember the circumstances. The family, in the, predominantly Yemenite village of Magdiel were in grief; I remember the men, sitting cross-legged on the floor, the father in tears – us uncomfortable, awkward; it is likely that something similar to ‘I wish you long life,’ was said in Hebrew, amidst the ululating and torn clothes, the covered mirrors and unshaven faces.
As society moves-on, death becomes more distant – we live longer, fewer of us, in the West, at least, experience death; most adults have never seen a dead body, most into middle-age, have both parents living – this wasn’t the way of the world in the past, nor was it how we evolved as a society or a people.
We have become estranged, alienated from life’s end. And with this, likely, the customs, the phrases, unspoken responses – how to grieve, how to celebrate life.
I can still recall my mum’s discomfort at my reticence to say, ‘I wish you…’ to a bereaved relative or family friend – it was weird then and I struggle now. I know that my embarrassment at relating to the old ways shouldn’t be an obstacle to tradition. After all, it is just a few simple words, but, where do you go, what do you say when your wish is to convey something deeper, more meaningful, long-lasting than what is in effect a catchphrase?
At recent funeral of a family friend, I can’t remember whether I used the phrase; I don’t recall what I said or how I said it, whether a hug, a hand-shake, slap on the back – these events are always so filled with emotion that capturing the moment is difficult.
I guess I should man-up for the next occasion when the traditional expression is called-for, after all, it is only words, and words, whether they are weighted with meaning or lost on the wind have power and significance beyond their uttering.