Monday, April 26, 2010

Natan Luehrmann-Cowen: Finding Meaning in the Face of Great Loss

And, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of Heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
--William Shakespeare

He was a sweet, gentle soul, full of smiles and energy. For thirteen years, he lived, laughed, and loved. A brilliant young man possessed of enormous gifts, Natan Luehrmann-Cowen had a giant heart, a generous spirit, an imposing intellect, and a zest for life that exceeded most mortal souls. He lived life as if each day were his last. He loved his family; he loved his friends; he loved his Jewish faith; he loved living and dreamed undoubtedly of grand achievements and unlimited milestones. He was gifted in so many ways it is not possible to do him justice. Best of all, he was a mensch.

A bit reckless at times, Natan possessed a stubborn independence that recognized few limits. He believed he could do anything he set his mind to, from rock climbing to chemistry, from performing a piano recital to running a 5K race. He was a champion chess player and an academic standout (to us mere mortals, Natan was a near genius, scoring close to 700 on the math SAT’s in only the seventh grade). He was an enthusiastic member of his synagogue’s junior choir, a budding clarinetist and concert pianist, a competitive swimmer and the newest member of the middle school tennis team (though he did not find out that he had made the team on the day he died) and, as if that were not enough, he played baseball, soccer, and cross country. He did everything with gusto and zeal, his fervor and determination occasionally outmatching his athletic skills. For thirteen short years, Natan led by example, getting everything he could from life, a young man determined to find meaning and purpose, to have life catch up to him.

Although small in stature, Natan had an enormous presence, providing energy and light to any room he entered. Had he been given the chance, I am convinced he would have someday found a cure for cancer, or invented a new energy source, or written the definitive treatise on the laws of physics, or perhaps all of these things. He was a special young man, destined for greatness.

I do not know why bad things happen to good people, only that they do. Young men and women die in combat, fighting valiantly for their country in wars they do not fully understand or have any control over; young children die of cancer and leukemia and other illnesses that turn the world upside down, violating the natural order and causing chaos in the lives of their family and friends. Natural disasters inflict suffering and death on thousands of people every year. The world reminds us each day of life’s fragility, yet most of us ignore the signs and, when something tragic occurs, we are caught blindsided, our breath taken away by unexpected and unwelcome events.

I cannot offer any good reasons for why Natan is no longer with us, why God, or fate, or just pure bad luck decided to take him from us. It is easy to wonder, and impossible to answer, why God would allow someone as good and decent and with so much potential to benefit the world as Natan Luehrmann-Cowen to become the victim of a criminally reckless act. I cannot explain why the forces of nature would permit Natan, while skateboarding after school on a warm, sunny, early-Spring afternoon, to be struck by a truck operated by a 25 year-old heroin addict doing 63 miles per hour in a 25 m.p.h. zone. A police investigation found that the driver was under the influence of several illegal street narcotics at the time of the accident – blood tests proving he was seriously impaired – while an accident reconstruction found that the truck was traveling nearly 40 miles per hour above the speed limit on a quiet, side street in a normally safe, suburban neighborhood. The District Attorney has charged the driver with vehicular homicide and other crimes, but that is another matter, one for the courts and public scrutiny; it will not return Natan to us, nor console or comfort his loving family.

It is difficult not to ask why, not to be full of anger and bitterness that a bright and shining star of this world was taken from us. Where does one find comfort in the face of such tragedy? How does one continue to pray to a God that would allow such things to happen?

Though it is easy to blame God for such tragedy, in the end it serves no purpose and gets us off track. We often attribute to God the ability to intercede and protect us from harm, as if the orderliness of the universe cannot let bad things occur. But sometimes tragedy strikes the innocent for no good reason; sometimes a conglomeration of forces mold together in a string of unlucky circumstances, and there is no point in looking for a reason. The world is full of random suffering, occasionally caused by nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon Books, 1981), Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, whose own faith was tested when his young son died prematurely of an illness, has written that suffering is sometimes caused by the workings of natural law, by forces and circumstances blind to good and evil and involving no moral judgment. Kushner suggests, correctly I believe, that God does not intervene to save good people from earthquakes, disease, or misfortune, nor does God intercede to punish the wicked. "Laws of nature do not make exceptions for nice people. A bullet has no conscience; neither does a malignant tumor or an automobile gone out of control. That is why good people get sick and get hurt as much as anyone.” God does not interrupt the world’s activities to “protect the righteous from harm” and, while God does not cause tragedy, neither does God prevent tragedy.

Why then, do we resort to prayer in the face of tragedy? How then, do we continue to believe in a God whose ability to protect us from harm or to correct injustice is so limited? There may be no true answers to such questions, but Rabbi Kushner provides two reasons that I believe are worth consideration: First, the prayers of others can make us aware that we are not facing our problems alone. Second, God can give us the strength of character that we need to handle our misfortunes, if we are willing to accept it. “People who pray for miracles usually don't get miracles. . . . But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered." God neither sends us the problem, nor can he fix it, but “[h]e gives us the strength to cope with the problem."

Natan’s funeral service was held at Congregation Beth Or, a place where Natan left a huge footprint and touched the lives of so many. In leading the service, Rabbi Gregory Marx made plain that he could offer no words of comfort, that Natan’s death violated the natural order of things; children should bury their parents, not the other way around. Natan’s fate is a cruel example only of the chaos of this world, proof that there is no order to the universe, not when such pain and suffering can be allowed to occur. But perhaps, as Rabbi Kushner has written, pain “is the price we pay for being alive.”
When we understand that, our question will change from, 'why do we have to be in pain?' to 'what do we do with our pain so that it becomes meaningful and is not just pointless empty suffering? How can we turn all the painful experiences of our lives into birth pangs or into growing pains?' We may not ever understand why we suffer or be able to control the forces that cause our suffering, but we can have a lot to say about what the suffering does to us, and what sort of people we become because of it. Pain makes some people bitter and envious. It makes others sensitive and compassionate. It is the result, not the cause, of pain that makes some experiences of pain meaningful and others empty and destructive.
In the end, "All we can do is try to rise beyond the question 'why did it happen?' and begin to ask the question 'what do I do now that it has happened?'"

That Natan is no longer with us is a reality we all must learn to accept; for Natan’s wonderful parents, Ben and Mia, and Natan’s older brother, Aron, perhaps only God, with the support of friends and family, can provide them the strength to endure and carry on over time. For the rest of us, those touched by Natan’s greatness and zest for life, it is the necessity of moving ahead, to transgress the pain, knowing that what happened cannot be reversed but can only be prevented from happening to another child. Perhaps our aspirations must encompass the goal of helping the Luehrmann-Cowen family maintain their sense of purpose, compassion, and taste for life, so that Natan’s wonderful memory, his love and generosity, will endure and live on forever.

So, in the words of Rabbi Kushner, “Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people?”

That depends on what we mean by 'answer'. If we mean 'Is there an explanation which will make sense of it all?' . . . then there probably is no satisfying answer. We can offer learned explanations, but in the end, when we have covered all the squares on the game board and are feeling very proud of our cleverness, the pain and the anguish and the sense of unfairness will still be there. But the word 'answer' can also mean 'response' as well as 'explanation,' and in that sense, there may well be a satisfying answer to the tragedies in our lives. . . . [T]o forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all.


  1. Thank you, thank you, Mark. I am one of Natan's grandmothers. I miss him so. But your words help. Thank you.

  2. Daddy,

    This is so, so beautiful. There are no answers to the pain and suffering and if an answer ever were to be supplied, possibly in what comes after this life, it could never make up for what was lost, ever. The first quote by Shakespeare is so true; Natan is lighting up heaven brighter than any fire ever could, just as he lit up the world of the living. We will love him and remember him forever, and though a sadness may always pull at our hearts, and for now this sharp and relentless pain, we shall follow him in his footsteps and live our lives to the fullest in honor of him.


    And Martha,

    This is Hannah Ehlers, Beth Rubin's daughter. We miss you and Aron and all of your family and we send all of our love to you. We miss Natan so much and his bubbly personality and angelic, though sometimes quite devilish face. Our immeasurable love for him shall never cease as well as our memory of him.


  3. Martha,

    I am heartened that my words were helpful to you. I needed time to reflect on everything but found that writing these thoughts down was meaningful and therapeutic. To answer your question, I am the father of Jen and Hannah Ehlers (Beth Rubin is their mom) and we have been friends of the family since moving to Philadelphia around 14 years ago. Hannah and Aron shared the bimah together on their respective bar an bat mitzvahs. We will always remember Natan with great affection, and miss him greatly.

    Hannah -- Thank you, sweetie, for your beautiful comments.

  4. Mark - I haven't visited your blog for a long while and, for some reason, clicked on today. I obviously didn't know Natan, but reading your incredibly deep and sensitive reflection about his life and the senselessness of his death brought tears to my eyes. Mostly, I'm struck by and share your continued struggle with the theology of "why". Your quoting Rabbi Kushner makes me determined to find his book on my shelf and re-read it. It has meaning for more than understanding untimely death. Thanks so much.
    Kathleen Daugherty

  5. Mark,

    Thank you for your beautiful words. Our hearts go out to all the people who were in Nathan's life and are now suffering that loss.

    The quotes from Rabbi Kushner (his book was so helpful) and your insights help affirm the process that was most beneficial to us when tragedy struck our family after our youngest son was hit by a car and suffered a tramatic head injury. While our experience with our son did not curtail his life, it did change his life forever in a very dramatic and difficult way. The love and support of people have enabled both he and Jack and I to continue on.

    Thanks again for your words and mostly for your caring.

  6. Mark,
    It's been two and a half years, and I've just stumbled upon your post. I'm one of Natan's cousins, and being only two years older, I expected to finish growing up with him and watch the amazing scope of his future. But, you're right about finding what to constructively do with our pain. I've spent so long lamenting what my baby cousin didn't get to do and the last things I said to him; I don't think I fully appreciated all he had lived in that short a time.

    At his funeral and time surrounding it, I remember a few people (perhaps one was you) saying how he had lived more in 13 years than most of us do in a lifetime; at the time, I chalked those comments up to being just slightly above "it's part of G-d's plan", but I think I'm starting to really see the value in that view. While Natan would surely have done much more, he lived so admirably in his years.
    Thank you for your post; it's time I adopted a new view.
    Gillian Ariela

  7. Gillian,

    Thank you for your sharing your thoughts and comments. It is impossible to know what is the correct approach to mourning the loss of a loved one and coming to grips with an irrational and incomprehensible event. The only thing that helps me, and I hope helps others, is to attempt to gain something positive from the loss, and to view Natan's life as a model for how we can make more of what is left of ours. I wish you God's peace in your life's journey.