“No one escapes this life unscathed.”
I sat up in my chair. The TV was on but I was concentrating on something else. This line, however, caught my attention. I’d been thinking about this week’s Torah portion and Aaron’s nearly simultaneous experiences of two of his life’s highest and lowest moments – his ordination as High Priest, and the tragic deaths of two of his sons.
Yes, I thought, no one gets through life without experiencing trauma. But some traumas are more intense than others. And the loss of a child? It sits at the top of the list.
In an article called What I Wish More People Understood About Losing a Child, Paula Stephens wrote, “The loss of a child… is a degree of suffering that is impossible to grasp without experiencing it first hand.” She calls the death of a child “an out-of-order death.”
And the age at which the child died is irrelevant. The Bible doesn’t tell us how old Aaron’s sons were, but they were at least in their teen years because they were ordained as priests along with their father and other brothers. So at the very least, they were what we’d call today “young men.” Ms. Stephens wrote about a support group that she attended where the parents were grieving children who died at a wide range of ages – from six to 38.
She offers four lessons for those of us who wish to support grieving parents:
1. Remember the children. Say their names, share memories about them. Pretending they didn’t exist only hurts their parents even further, and intensifies the loneliness of their grief.
2. Accept that you can’t “fix” grieving parents. For me, this is true of anyone who has suffered a loss. We can’t make things better for them, and we can’t truly understand their pain, even if we’ve experienced a similar loss. Phrases like “time heals all wounds” or “it’s time to get on with your life” should be banned from the English language.
3. Know that there are at least two days a year when they need a time out. The two hardest days? Birthdays and anniversaries of death, what we call yartzeits in Judaism. Take special care with your grieving friends on these dates, and see #1 above – if they are open to talking, feel free to share memories of their child. And remember that it doesn’t matter how long ago their child died; they will always grieve.
4. Realize that they struggle every day with happiness. As Ms. Stephens put it, “It’s an ongoing battle to balance the pain and guilt of outliving your child with the desire to live in a way that honors them and their time on this earth.” This week, a man named Jeremy Richman died by suicide, more than six years after his 6-year-old daughter Arielle was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He and his wife had founded the Arielle Foundation in her honor. But ultimately, the battle must have been too much for him.
In the Torah, Aaron is silent after his sons Nadav and Avihu are killed. Our sages offer many explanations for his silence. But I think the most poignant was spoken by my friend Rachel Barenblatt last night, when a group of people gathered via the internet to support her after her beloved mother’s death: “There are no words.”
Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes, silence is all that a grieving person can manage.
For those of us who wish to support them in their time of grief, we can remember that often, no words are necessary from us either. Our mere presence can be enough. This is why we’re enjoined to remain silent when we enter a shiva house, where family members accept visitors during the seven days after a burial. It’s up to the person who is grieving to speak first; if he or she doesn’t want to talk, then we can sit with them in silence.
It is true that no one escapes this life unscathed. But it also can be true that no one suffers a loss alone. This is the strength, the power, and the importance of community; that we can and will be there for each other, in sorrow as well as in joy.
Dedicated to my friend and colleague Rabbi Amy Grossblatt Pessah and the memory of her beloved son Yossi, z”l