When a Jewish Child Dies

It may feel like walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

Excerpted from “Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow: When a Jewish Child Dies.” Reprinted with permission of the author.

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and staff they comfort me…” (Psalms 23:4)

Helping Your Friends Help You

It is very difficult for someone who has not suffered the loss of a child to comprehend the total devastation that a bereaved parent feels, especially in the early weeks and months. Some friends and relatives will feel so unable to communicate with you that they will stay away. The desertion may be temporary, and it may be long-term. If you feel so strongly about a particular individual’s absence from your life that you want to reach out, do so. But always keep in mind that your own well-being must come first.mother mourning for her baby son

Some people may express their concern in a blaming way, as Job’s “friends” did in the Bible. Although they may honestly believe that they have your welfare at heart, it is best to protect yourself by eliminating such people from your life, at least at this time. It may be hard to exclude a well-intentioned person, but you are very vulnerable, you have enough problems, and you do not need anyone around you who cannot be genuinely sympathetic.

Birthdays, Yahrzeits and Holidays

Certain times of year and particular dates on the calendar may trigger increased anxiety and unhappiness. Most common are the approaching birthday of the child, his death date, and holidays that held special significance for him or for the family as a unit. Becky’s birthday, June 15, is always a tough day for me. But some years the intensity is even greater because it coincides with Father’s Day. Since the Hebrew date of death rarely is the same as the secular date, the death anniversary (yahrzeit) each year is a two-edged sword. You may go to services to recite kaddish, and light the memorial candle on the yahrzeit, but the universally accepted calendar date will be there as well; thus, a potential double-whammy.

Your child’s favorite holiday celebration may have been the family gathering for Pesach seder or for Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July barbecue and fireworks, or building a sukkah together. A seat at the table will be empty now, and there will be one less pair of hands to help with preparations or plan the festivities.

You may choose to eliminate or alter the way your family commemorates particular holidays, at least for the time being. You may, consciously or otherwise, seek to create new traditions related to a certain occasion. But running away or attempting to ignore a calendar date doesn’t work, so you might as well face each of these realities head-on. Since we all grieve differently, this could mean a special trip to the cemetery, a long walk in the woods, or spending the day in bed, crying. You may find comfort in doing something on a birthday or anniversary that your child loved to do–shopping; going to the beach; a particular kind of concert; a ballgame or museum; whatever. For others, just taking care of yourself and getting through the day is paramount.

Advance planning on how to cope may help alleviate pain and reduce anxiety. Having people you love around you, and sharing memories, can help. In any event, many people find that anticipation prior to the day is often more difficult than the day itself.

Emotions are also likely to surge when you receive an invitation to a bar or bat-mitzvah, a wedding, or a graduation. Seeing someone completing a life-cycle event, or achieving a goal that your child will never reach, can be extremely upsetting. You may care a lot about the person celebrating–enough, sometimes, that you may be willing to play the martyr and attend. Declining invitations is often risky, and may be misinterpreted, but your primary consideration should be your own feelings. If you are not up to it, tell the host so. A true friend or compassionate relative will understand. If he does not, let it be his problem.

The Power of Prayer

Few phrases are more difficult to recite than “Adonai dayan ha-emet,” the pronouncement the bereaved make at the funeral, affirming that “God is the true (or righteous) judge.” This expression, which comes more readily to the traditionally religious, may present a problem to others, especially to those whose child is being lowered into the ground. Pronounced with conviction, this statement of faith ushers in a period of prayer and reflection that provides great comfort for many people.

But prayer does not work for everyone. If you did not consider yourself religious (or inclined toward the spiritual aspect of life) before the death of your child, you may be disinclined to move in that direction now. If you are open to trying something different, however, or you have previously had an interest in religion or spirituality, you might want to look at what prayer has to offer.

If you are angry with God, and question how a loving or omnipotent God could arbitrarily deprive you of your beloved child, you might not be open to re-examining your feelings or reinterpreting your concept of God. Such an attitude is not only understandable; it remains the dominant attitude of a large percentage of bereaved parents. Yet, some people say: “It’s okay to be angry with God; He’s big enough to handle it.”

Perhaps the strongest case for redefining God and making a reinvented God work for you is presented by Rabbi Harold Kushner in “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Even if you read this book before your child died, a re-reading in view of your current realities might cast a different light on what you can derive from it.

On the other hand, examination of specific issues in light of traditional Jewish thinking may open to you an approach to life that you may not have seriously considered before; or it may reinforce long-held beliefs. The definitive presentation from the Orthodox perspective continues to be “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning” by Rabbi Maurice Lamm.

Solace in Faith

Communal prayer may or may not meet your needs. Typically, you read from the prayerbook alongside congregants who are coping with the normal range of every-day problems; their lives go on as usual, without traumatic interruption. This may be disturbing, even counterproductive, for some people, especially those who have buried a child.

But if we recognize our need to talk about our loss, we might think of prayer as a personal communion with God in which we seek healing by recounting our story and that of our child. We could talk to God as the supremely patient, understanding, loving listener. If God is indeed always there for us, and can accept our frailties, our anger, and our doubts, this personal form of prayer may be helpful.

If faith has the power to console, to allay fears, to encourage self-confidence, it might indeed be one of the elements that can carry us through “the valley of the shadow of death.” The road to recovery will be long and arduous, and we need all the help we can get. Personally, I find solace in reading Psalms. If prayer in whatever form may work for you, it is worth a try.

This is a time to look inside for what the Prophet Elijah called “the still small voice” within you, and go with your gut feeling. You may regard this process as “prayer,” meditation, introspection, or something else. But regardless of the title, it enables you to look deep inside yourself, it gives you the right to question authority, and it reminds you to invoke your sacred responsibility to yourself to put your own needs first at this time.

Ten Guideposts

As you look at the awesome task ahead–how to negotiate the pitfalls and anticipate some of the hazards in the valley of the shadow of death–these are some of the things you should try to learn:

1. Do those things that give you peace of mind; not necessarily what others suggest or pressure you to do.

2. Surround yourself with people who understand and make you feel comfortable; who know they can’t fix things; who are compassionate; and who don’t try to take your grief away from you.

3. Tell those who care about you what you need in order to survive (they do not automatically know); and accept the fact that not all relatives and old friends will be able to provide what you need at this time (so you may have to give some of them up).

4. Give yourself permission to do what you feel like doing, as long as you harm no one: cry alone, pray, scream, cry with others, withdraw, express anger, meditate, cry some more.

5. Grieve when and how you want to, rather than on someone else’s timetable.

6. Do things at your own pace, in accordance with your own feelings, and therefore accept the idea that you may not be able to accomplish everything you used to–at least for now, though perhaps long-term as well.

7. Maintain open communication with your spouse and children, recognizing that we each grieve differently.

8. Look out for your own needs first; this is one time of life when selfishness is really okay.

9. Try hard to believe that life really is worth living–whether your rationale be to perpetuate your child’s memory; or to resume accomplishing the goals you previously had set for yourself; or to strive toward entirely new goals; or to try to find the answers to the age-old question of “Why?”; or for any other reason that has meaning to you.

10. Have faith, even on the darkest days, that there will indeed be light at the end of the tunnel; that life may again have meaning as you begin to emerge from the valley of the shadow.

Sign up for a Journey Through Grief & Mourning: Whether you have lost a loved one recently or just want to learn the basics of Jewish mourning rituals, this 8-part email series will guide you through everything you need to know and help you feel supported and comforted at a difficult time.

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