Zibby Owens: Welcome, Rabbi Leder. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Beauty of What Remains, your brand-new book.

Rabbi Steve Leder: Thank you. I’m really happy to be with you today.

Zibby: First of all, whenever my friend Karen Frankel tells me to do anything, I do it because she has the best taste and recommendations for everything. When she recommended your book, I was like, of course. Then I read it, and it was unbelievably amazing. I’m delighted to be connected with you.

Steve: Thank you. As am I. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me about it.

Zibby: My pleasure. Now I have to go back and read all your other books. Could you please tell listeners what this book is about and what inspired you to write it?

Steve: I think the best way I can frame this book is as an apology. Let me explain. I had been a rabbi for about thirty years before I started writing this book. Obviously, I helped many, many hundreds, thousands. I calculated that I had officiated roughly a thousand funerals over those thirty years. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of helping people and guiding them through this process and of helping them discover what an extraordinary teacher death is when it comes to helping us lead meaningful lives. I thought I would’ve given myself maybe an A-, maybe even an A, in the rabbi/pastoral department. Then my father died. In the run-up to, during, and the aftermath of his death, I realized that despite my best efforts in the past, I was really, as I say in the book, one degree shy of the deepest truth when it comes to guiding people through the many ways death teaches us about life. I wrote this book really as a kind of apology, an attempt to undo what I had gotten wrong and to get it right and to put the reader on my shoulder as I walked through my own trajectory with my father’s ten-year decline due to Alzheimer’s and his death and to put the reader on my shoulder as I walk into the homes and hospital rooms of so many others to help them through what is inevitable for all of us. To succinctly answer your question, the book is an attempt to get it right.

Zibby: Wow. There was so much helpful information in the book. I don’t think you need to apologize. I think A- would’ve been perfectly fine, by the way. You still have graduated with honors in my book.

Steve: You didn’t grow up in my family.

Zibby: Okay. In my family, they were happy with A-, at least for me. I think that even without that layer, you had so many tidbits and anecdotes and stories from the many people you’ve helped, including really gut-wrenching decisions like to what to say with your rabbi hat on versus your Steve hat on to the woman who wanted to know if her family could assist in her death at the last minute and you didn’t know what to do, to all these other moments where you’ve helped families say goodbye, moments you’ve come in with jokes. I appreciate you putting in a few jokes in case the rest of us are really at a loss and need a good one to buffer our conversation skills. I’m going to have to photocopy those and hang them up. There’s this whole piece of you which is, this is me as the rabbi, and this is me as me. Then this book, I feel like, is where the two come together.

Steve: I did want to explore in this book, the tension and the dance that goes on within me when I am both rabbi and friend, rabbi and son, rabbi and husband, rabbi and father. Often, those are aligned, but sometimes they’re in conflict. What I really, really tried to do in this book is to weave that conflict and that tension and that resolution throughout the entire book. It’s another component of putting the reader on my shoulder because so few people see behind the curtain when it comes to what clergy really do and how they do it. So few understand, so few clergy honestly, understand the dynamic within themselves that has to be resolved, the cognitive dissonance between, in my case, the rabbi and the man, the rabbi and the son. Addressing that conflict has made me a better rabbi and a better son. That’s the end result. That’s part of the reason I called the book The Beauty of What Remains. There are other reasons, but that’s a big part of it. Once you engage in that internal conversation, what remains is really, for me, something quite beautiful.

Zibby: One of the most helpful pieces of advice in this book, and there is just so much, is for anybody who’s feeling anxious about death, it means they’re not dying and that you can just go back to living and wait. At the time when you die, then you can start worrying about it. For somebody with immense amounts of anxiety about everything like me, that was very helpful. Here, I’m just going to read this one quote. You said, “Most people are ready for death the way we are all ready for sleep after a long and exhausting day. We just want to pull the covers up around our aching heads and settle in for the peace of it all. We are not anxious about sleeping. We are not depressed about it. We are not afraid of it. Disease, age, and life itself prepare us for death. There is time for everything, and when it is our time to die, death is as natural a thing as life itself. Consider this very good news. For those of us who fear death, dying people are not afraid of dying. If you are afraid of dying, it is not your day. Anxiety is for the living.” I’m actually going to post this on my bulletin board right now. That’s going to stay.

Steve: It’s really true. It’s really helpful for people. It’s sort of counterintuitive, but it’s really helpful when I can look someone in the eye after they tell me, “I’m really afraid to die.” I say, “That’s because you’re not dying, certainly not today.” When you are really actively dying, you will not be afraid. Zibby, in thirty-three years now at the bedside of more than a thousand dying people, when that person is really ready to die, not once, not one single person has expressed fear to me. I ask, “Are you afraid?” The answer has, every time, been no. I know that’s anecdotal evidence, but it’s pretty persuasive. It is why I can say with a very high degree of confidence that if you fear death, you’re not dying. Take a breath.

Zibby: It’s interesting. My grandmother just passed away. She was ninety-seven and had been very healthy until the very end. Because of COVID, we could only say goodbye over FaceTime, which was just horrific and so sad. She was there with an aid. As she was unconscious at the end, I was like, “Is she afraid? Did she say she was afraid?” When she was alive, she was always taking about how afraid she was to die. “Does she know she’s dying? Is she afraid?” She was like, “No, no.” Maybe she was just saying that to make me feel better. She said, “No, no, not at all. I told her I was right here. She said, okay.” Then when I would say over FaceTime, “Gadgi, don’t be afraid. Everything’s okay,” her eyes kind of flickered, and that was it. I didn’t see any fear. I just felt a sense of peace.

Steve: There is a point in life when death makes sense, but you have to be at that point in order to understand that.

Zibby: So I guess it’s good I don’t understand it.

Steve: It’s a sign.

Zibby: It’s a sign that I’m alive.

Steve: That you’re alive and not actively dying, correct.

Zibby: The rest of your book, though, talks about — not the rest, but a lot of your book talks about the effect of death on the living and the loss of other people and the effect of illness like all the things you had to go through with your dad. Oh, my gosh, the scene with you tossing the balloon at your dad, all these moments, when you go and cry in the hallway, you can just put yourself in your shoes time and time again and feel that pain and suffering. The rest of it is about how you deal with the loss. You had great advice on that too. You say, “It won’t always hurt so much. I used to think that what they meant was that eventually grief abates, the ache diminishes. Now what I think they meant was not that it won’t always hurt so much, but that it won’t always hurt so often.” Tell me about that.

Steve: That’s right. One of the most difficult things that I have to manage is the death of a child. There are very few things in life more difficult than that. Of course, as the rabbi, I take that on my shoulders with the family. I carry it with them. I even carry the casket. I always volunteer to carry the casket because it’s too painful for the parents. Just imagine a casket the size of a shoebox.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, stop.

Steve: As a way of learning more about the feeling of losing a child, I read a book many years ago edited by two women, both of whom had children who died. It’s an anthology of writers writing about writers who had children die writing about the experience. For example, Robert Frost had four children die. Mark Twain had a child die. They wrote about it. In the introduction, these women say that the thing that helped them the most and was the most honest was when someone said to them, it won’t always hurt so much. I said that for years. This is part of the apology component of the book. I said that, Zibby, so many years, decades, to parents. I would say, look, the most honest and helpful thing I can tell you right now is it won’t always hurt so much. Then my father died, obviously a more normative circumstance than the death of a child. I stopped saying that to people because it’s not true. The truth is, it won’t always hurt so often, but when it hurts, it hurts every bit as much.

That is the truth. That has to be said. I find by enlightening people in this way, it enables them to go with these waves that come at them. One of the things I say in the book is that anyone who thinks the shortest distance between two points is a straight line doesn’t understand grief because grief is nonlinear. This business about there being stages of grief, my opinion, it’s nonsense. Grief is much more like waves. It ebbs and it flows. It ebbs and it flows. The waves get further apart. Every once in a while when your back is turned, you can just get slammed by a rogue wave that you didn’t see coming. It can be a song. It can be a taste. It can be a place. It can be something you desperately wish you could share with your loved one who’s gone. These waves hit us. When you’re really looking at a wave, you have two choices. You can try to stand up against it — what normally happens then is it crashes in on you and throws you upside down and you’re gasping for air and lost and confused — or you can submit and lie down and float with it until you’re able to stand up again. That’s grief. It’s the floating. It’s the learning to float with it until you can stand again. That is the honest truth about grief.

Zibby: I have been, then, on the beach watching this ocean ravage my husband and his sister as their mother and grandmother just passed away from COVID. I have watched firsthand exactly what you’re talking about, especially the first week. In the first week, every few hours somebody would fall. It was one and then the other and the other. I was running back and forth. Now it’s been a couple months. It’s still, well, it knocked me over this morning. I was okay, but then two days ago, this. It’s exactly it. It’s not predictable. You can’t plan for it.

Steve: No. I think it’s always okay when it comes. I don’t think there’s a wrong way to grieve. Obviously, I’m not talking about a person who doesn’t eat and can’t sleep for months and becomes clinically ill. There’s really no wrong way, just as there’s no wrong moment or time to feel love because actually, that’s really what you’re feeling. That’s another way of seeing grief that makes it more beautiful to embrace. Grief is really a reflection of love. One of the things I talk about in the book — the book is for everyone. Obviously, I’m a rabbi and I wrote it, but it’s really not a Jewish book. It may be a book for Jews like everyone else, but it’s not a Jewish book. I do, in the book, talk about that verse from the twenty-third psalm that everyone knows. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” There are two very nuanced and very beautiful and important, profound ideas in that verse. The first, we walk through this valley of darkness. We don’t stay there forever.

Even more nuanced and more profound is this metaphor of a valley of shadows for grief. If you think really deeply about a shadow, no matter how long, no matter how dark, it’s proof that the light is still shining. You cannot have a shadow without light. Without light, you have total darkness, not a shadow. The light is obstructed in this metaphor by mountains on each side of the valley, of course, but in the real world, by our grief. What is grief really if not a reflection of the love that we had and continue to have with the person who has died? In that way, we can start to rethink grief and see it as something quite beautiful and really exquisite despite its pain. There’s a duality, of course, to grief. I also say in the book, there’s a duality to memory. We always say, may his memory be a blessing. Wolf Blitzer’s made a living off of that on CNN. The truth about memory is that it’s beautiful and it hurts. It’s both. In the book, I say it’s like being caressed and spat on at the same time. That’s memory.

The more we understand the fullness of the experience, the more we’re able to find the beauty within in it. Maybe there’s a little bit of hyperbole in this statement to the ears of others, but as a guy who’s been on the inside of this for a long time, I will tell you, I think death is the great teacher in life. Imagine a deathless life. Think about that for a moment. Imagine a life that was endless. What value would that life have? What would happen to ambition? What would happen to love? What would happen to having children? It would all be gone. Death is the great teacher when it comes to really embracing and enjoying and getting the most out of and giving the most to life and love themselves.

Zibby: Now I’m getting worried that maybe you’re sick because it sounds like you’re not scared at all to die either.

Steve: I don’t think about it. Look, I don’t want to die. I’m sixty years old. I want to have grandchildren. I want to have fun and all of these things. When I do feel any fear of death, I remind myself of my own words, which is, you’re clearly not dying if you’re worried about dying. When the day comes, you’re going to be fine. You’re going to be fine. You’re going to be better than fine because it’s as natural, as I said, as birth itself. My kids worry about me. Especially now during COVID, I’m officiating at three, four, five funerals a week now. Very large congregation, obviously. My kids get wind of this. They’ve been at the dinner table for their lives listening to Daddy’s day. My kids worry about me dying. I say, look, rare accidents occur, but the truth is, I am not likely to die until you are ready to handle it.

Zibby: Aw, that’s really nice. I’m going to steal that and tell my kids.

Steve: And it’s true. We can get to what to say to kids about when they ask you, are you going to die? There’s a whole conversation that you can have with them that I think will really calm them down quite a bit and maybe calm you down too, Zibby. I don’t know.

Zibby: I know you wrote about that in the book as well. You had advice on everything that anyone could ever want.

Steve: I wanted it to be a field guide and a journey. That’s really what I was hoping to do, put you, the reader, on my shoulder and journey through the resolution of the rabbi versus the son, the son versus the rabbi, the resolution that memory brings to my relationship with a very complicated and difficult father and also a very amazing father. As most high achievers are, they’re complicated and they’re amazing. Also, to put you on my shoulder on this journey with other families and other situations. I hope that it’s a field guide for this journey. I ultimately hope that it really helps people — well, you read it. You tell me. Be honest. I hope that it ultimately helps people take their own lives more seriously and appreciate those lives more deeply. That’s really the hope. That’s why it’s called The Beauty of What Remains.

Zibby: What you said, one of my favorite lines that I think reflects this, you said, “The profound and simple truth is that we are each writing our own eulogy every day with the pen of our lives.” That’s also going up on the bulletin board. These are profound statements that you make. It’s so true. The way we live each day, the culmination of that, that’s all that we’re left with. That’s what people will say when we’re gone. That’s all you can do, is live the way you want to be remembered. It sounds obvious, but it’s so important.

Steve: That’s right. There’s this notion that I often share with people about living as a good ancestor. We don’t think of ourselves as ancestors. We are, just not yet. Can you live as a good ancestor? That’s a really good question to ask one’s self. Am I being a good ancestor for generations yet to be born? You know this line of cleaning products called Seventh Generation?

Zibby: Mm-hmm.

Steve: That comes from the great law of the Iroquois tribe which says that when the elders make a decision, they have to consider the impact of that decision on the seventh generation to follow. What a way to live. What a world we would have if we lived that way.

Zibby: Wow. It’s certainly something to aspire to. That’s a lot of cleaning. Tell me a little bit about the writing of this book. You wrote in the book that you took a sabbatical and spent a month in Palm Springs just writing about death in the midst of COVID. Tell me what that experience was like.

Steve: Off and on, I set aside time. I need a long runway to write. I’m not a guy who, oh, I have an hour and a half, I’m going to sit down and knock out ten pages. I need a really long runway. There’s a lot of pacing. There’s a lot of straightening up. There’s a lot of snacking on sunflower seeds and potato chips. I need a lot of runway. I also need to be intensely alone when I write. Most of this book was written in an empty house in Palm Springs and in an empty cabin in Joshua Tree, which is an extraordinary desert about three hours from Los Angeles. I locked myself in a cabin with no TV, no internet, nothing. This book just poured out. I don’t know if that’s a process as much as it’s an environment. Putting myself in the right environment with absolutely no distractions is the only way that I could do it. This book forced me into the duality of memory because I had to go back and revisit the pain of my father’s Alzheimer’s, the pain of his death, the pain of his life, the pain of his mistakes, and to find a way for myself, and therefore I hope the reader, to see how we can round the sharp edges of our loved ones through memory and through our own lives and our own behaviors in their honor and memory.

Zibby: Beautiful. Last question, what advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Steve: There are a few things. First, I would say be aware that there is not one fun thing about writing a book, not one single enjoyable, fun thing. You have to know that going in. There’s nothing sexy about it. It the hardest kind of work. It’s really work. I think it was Hemmingway who said writing’s easy, you just sit down and open a vein. You really have to want to say what you’re planning on saying. That’s the first thing. The second thing I would say to aspiring writers is write what you know. Write what you know. The best books, I believe, are not research based, they’re people writing about what they intuitively know and have lived. Thirdly, I would say get published everywhere every chance you get. Say yes to everything. My writing career started because I said yes to writing a weekly column for a little Jewish newspaper in Los Angeles. A publisher started reading the columns, and I got my first book deal. Someone read that book, and I got my second. Someone read that book, and the third, etc., etc. It’s because I say yes to every opportunity to be published because it makes you better and because you learn.

It’s a combination of these things. Have no illusions about the pain of it all. Write what you know. Say yes to every opportunity. Since I began the answer on such a carping note to that question that there’s not one fun thing about it, I will say, and this happened to me two days ago — it’s emotional for me, writing a book, especially one as intimate as this. Other than holding my children in my arms when they were born, there is no feeling like holding your book when the publisher sends it to you and you’re the first. You open that carton and you hold that book, there’s no feeling like it on earth. I dreamed about it. I was in the writing program at Northwestern as an undergrad. This feeling of “I am a writer” is a very deep and beautiful and powerful feeling. It is not the same as, I am a parent, I am a mother, I am a father, but it’s in the same universe. It’s a pretty amazing feeling. To know that you’ve helped people, what else could one ask for than that?

Zibby: That’s amazing. You’re such a good speaker. You’re such a great writer. I wish I could just join your congregation.

Steve: You’re in. Plenty of room on the , Zibby.

Zibby: Maybe I’ll do a virtual — I’ll join my third temple.

Steve: You’re in.

Zibby: Thank you so much for all of your time. Thank you for this amazing and so-helpful book. Even, by the way, the article you wrote recently about surviving the holidays with grief in your life, that was also super useful. Thank you for all of it. I hope to stay in touch.

Steve: Thank you, Zibby. I deeply appreciate what you’re doing. Thank you.

Zibby: My pleasure. Buh-bye. Thanks.

Steve: Bye.