COVER STORY:Til death do us part

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Stacia Biltekoff remembers the first time her dead husband visited her in a dream.

Two months earlier, in June 2003, Matthew Sperry, 34, had been killed in a cycling accident on the streets of Oakland. The weeks following were nothing but a blur of shock and pain for Biltekoff.

Then, one night, looking up at the sky, she perceived a pattern in the stars suggestive of the “xoxo’s” her late husband would type when signing e-mails.

“I felt it was from him,” she says. “That night I asked him to come to me, and he did. It looked as if he had some medical [paraphernalia] on him, like they had worked on him and given up on him. He said, ‘I’m not in any pain,’ and he said, ‘It just is what it is.’ I had been trying to wrap my head around it.” She still can’t, really.

Biltekoff, 36, is a young Jewish widow, left with 4-year-old daughter Lila to rear and many years ahead to make sense of what happened.

Just past her husband’s second yarzheit, there are still no easy answers.

The loss of a spouse is almost always a catastrophe, no matter when or how it happens. Young widows like Biltekoff may be relatively uncommon, but they experience the same grief and sense of loss as older widows.

Judaism has long had elaborate social mechanisms to comfort widows and widowers, beginning with sitting shiva in those first days after the death, to longer-term companionship and caregiving, to saying Kaddish. Some of it goes back as far as the Torah itself. Rabbi Allen Bennett of Reform Temple Israel in Alameda sums it up as “the genius of Jewish tradition.”

For centuries, the system has been in place, though those dealing with loss would be the first to say that nothing really helps — at least at first.

“Everyone in a family has a niche,” says Lottie Solomon, whose husband, Herb, a popular Stanford professor, died last fall after a lengthy illness. “Nobody else can fill those little circles in your heart meant to be filled by the original inhabitants. I don’t find myself any better. I do a lot more crying.”

Such grief does not discriminate by gender. Harry Markowitz, 94, still mourns the loss of Anne, his wife of 64 years who died last November. “The first month was awful,” he says. “I never went to bed without crying. Now half the bed is empty. I’m angry with her because she left me.”

Diane Spicer of Palo Alto lost Bill, her husband of 35 years, in June 2004 while the two were vacationing in England. She too has her bad days, but says, “When I feel miserable, I also think how lucky we were. You learn to live with it, but [the pain] is always there.”

The diverse feelings of these bereaved spouses fall well within normal behavior, according to specialists.

Notes Rabbi Natan Fenner, “When people share their lives on so many levels the way spouses do, the loss can’t help but affect them, not only in terms of their mood but their thinking, their ability to function.”

Fenner is a board-certified chaplain and one of three rabbis serving full time at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, which offers one-on-one and group grief counseling to the bereaved. He is thoroughly grounded in the most current understanding of the grieving process, but he approaches the challenge from a spiritual point of view.

“I offer support in terms of rituals and prayers,” he says of his approach with clients. “I try to get a sense of where they are, their commitment to faith and community and what gave them a sense of meaning before. They have to re-knit that sense of meaning and learn how to be in the world as a mourner.”

Spicer joined a healing center support group not long after the death of her husband. She found the 10-week experience enormously helpful.

“You’re with people who know where you’re coming from,” she says. “If you feel horrible, there’s someone who understands. Then you realize life moves on and, if you’re smart, you make a good life for yourself.”

The fact that her support group was all Jewish and rabbi-led made a difference, she says. “You just feel more connection. It’s comforting. They’re part of you.”

After more than a decade of working with those experiencing loss, Fenner has become well-acquainted with the grieving process. “When the ground you thought was solid disappears from under you, things you followed for years are thrown into disarray,” he says. “Part of the early anger and disbelief can be a railing at God. ‘What good did my spirituality do me if my spouse is gone? I will toss out the whole thing.'”

Bennett says Jewish tradition is prepared to handle that kind of rage-filled sorrow. “The principle remains constant. When you are grief stricken, you shouldn’t try to do things to take your focus off it. Tradition says it’s the healthiest thing you can do. If you should be grieving and you avoid it, it’s going to sneak up behind you. Judaism says. ‘Let’s do this so the wound can be cleaned and have a chance to heal properly.'”

Not surprisingly, Biltekoff endured a crisis of faith during her healing process, felt most acutely during the High Holy Days. She and her husband were members of Berkeley’s Kehilla Community Synagogue, to which she still belongs.

“What devastated me that first Rosh Hashanah was the whole notion of being written into the Book of Life,” she recalls. “I was just angry. I couldn’t believe Matthew was not written into the Book of Life. There’s a whole part where you confess your sins, you get your pat on the back and get your name in the book. He by all means deserved a place in that book and didn’t get it.”

The day of the accident started out like any other. In the morning, the couple said goodbye to each other and Sperry left for work on his bike. Biltekoff returned home later that afternoon and found a business card taped to the front door.

It was from the coroner’s office. On the back, a hand-scrawled message: “Please call ASAP. Important. Re: Sperry.”

The details of that nightmarish day are forever etched in her brain. The cheesy music she heard while on hold with the coroner. Her screams when she heard the news and daughter Lila’s screams in response. The bicycles dropping out of her neighbors’ hands when she blurted out “Matthew’s dead” as they ran up the porch stairs. Her face numb, yet her body repeatedly feeling the impact of the truck hitting her husband.

She remembers saying to Kehilla Community Synagogue Rabbi David Cooper when he rushed to her home that day, “You’re here because my husband’s dead, aren’t you?”

Sperry, 34, was a world-class bassist and composer of contemporary classical music. He played with Tom Waits, was a member of the local klezmer band Red Hot Chachkes and played in the San Francisco production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

At the time of his death, he was working full time for an Emeryville-based educational toy company. Sperry had almost arrived at work, on the Oakland-Emeryville border, when a passing motorist struck him down.

Biltekoff and Sperry started dating in 1996 and married in 2000. Daughter Lila was born in 2001. The couple had been enjoying a kind of a second honeymoon, Biltekoff says, when her husband died. They were planning on soon having another child.

“Sometimes I think she gets it better than I do,” says Biltekoff of Lila. “She gets sad when I’m crying. She says, ‘It’s OK, Mama, I’m here.’ But I do not want her to feel that she has to take care of me.”

Biltekoff says a few Kehilla congregants were in the house following the accident, as was her circle of friends, to sit shiva with her. The rabbi stopped by every day, led a memorial service at the site where Sperry was struck and attended several of the memorial concerts.

But she sometimes wishes the Jewish community had done a little more to help her.

“Someone from Kehilla did help me figure out how to talk to Lila,” she says. “That was really helpful, but more practical stuff I could have used.” In particular, she would have liked to be directed toward grief counseling and similar resources. “I eventually found those things, just not through anyone at the temple. They did so much. I feel really good about what happened, and these other things would have been helpful.”

Trained as a doula (a birthing coach and post-natal caregiver for mother and baby), Biltekoff has since gone back to work and says she’s doing much better now. So is her daughter.

“I make a direct correlation with how Lila’s doing and how I’m doing,” she says. “When I’m available and present, she’s fine. We’re lucky we have such an extended supportive community, because Lila was able to get that support when I wasn’t there for her. She told me, ‘I can’t be in my daddy’s arms, but I can be in other people’s arms.'”

But Biltekoff still struggles. If anyone suggests Sperry died for a reason, Biltekoff wants to lash out. To the person who once told her, “You have to find the good in this,” she responded: “I dare you. Puleez.”

Solomon has had the same kinds of encounters with well-meaning friends. “People want to say the right thing,” she says, “but it’s an awkward business. These cliches are to make the person comfortable; if they come to visit they have to say something and they drag out these odd statements. But time does not heal anybody.”

Spicer says friends, family and work all helped her recover. “I don’t know what I would have done without work,” says Spicer, a tutor. “I work almost every day. Plus I’m a social person. But what’s hard is, a lot of our friends were married, and now I’m never invited to do things with them. This is common. As a widow you’re not included socially.”

Fenner has seen that pattern play out many times. “Sometimes in the process, everything that made sense before no longer makes sense, including how to navigate the social world, how to sleep, who to turn to for comfort. Over time, in little increments, there are opportunities to navigate one’s way and make a new kind of sense of one’s life.”

Having the support of the Jewish community often matters. Solomon was especially touched by the outpouring of support she received through her connections with Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

“All the clergy contacted me,” she says. “That was a very positive thing — to be surrounded by everybody in the community. Rabbi [Janet] Marder was fantastic. She was right here after it happened.”

Ultimately, each individual grapples with loss in his or her own way. In Bennett’s opinion, Judaism provides an optimum pathway to reconciliation. “To the best of my knowledge, none of us will live forever,” he says. “Most of us are not omniscient enough to outguess God’s calendar. Some things in the universe we can’t explain. The timing of death is one of those things.”

And, as time goes on, there is sometimes the possibility of new love. For Biltekoff, enough time has passed that the thought of dating again has begun to enter her mind.

“I feel ready for that,” she says. “I’m still young and beautiful, according to my friends. What I had with Matthew was magical and important and valuable. I don’t think I’m going to have that relationship again, but I’m sure I’ll be having something else that’ll be great.”

J. staff writer Alexandra J. Wall contributed to this story.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.