The Shiva After a Child’s Tragic Death

The Shiva After a Child’s Tragic Death

Yesterday I got tragic news, the 19-year-old son of our former neighbors, after only 3 months in the IDF, committed su icide last week. So yesterday, a friend and I went to the shiva.
I knew the father quite well from shopping at the store he owns. The mother and their late son, less so.
But I know the father as an exceptionally good-hearted person who greets everyone with a smile and a kind word. While not fully-observant, like most Sephardim, he deeply dedicated to Jewish traditions and family.
The son who died, I knew, was the apple of his father’s eye. This was his only son after 3 daughters. He spoke about him all the time. How gifted he was. How he was becoming more religious. His pride and joy.
So I braced myself for the shiva. This was going to be very hard…
But once at the shiva, I was surprised by what I found there.
The apartment was full, with around 70 relatives and friends sitting around in chairs, talking and eating. The atmosphere was somber but not tragedy-stricken, a room full of people, I felt, of remarkable strength, resilience, and (among some of them) faith.
When the father saw me, he greeted me, as always, with a smile. “My son,” he said, “was supposed to have gone on an educational tour of the military cemetery at Mt. Herzl with his unit last month. But he didn’t go, because he’s forbidden to go as a Cohen. But I guess he’ll be getting to spend a lot of time there in the end…” and then he shook his head with the slightest chuckle.
Unbelievable, I thought. After enduring what was certainly the most difficult experience of his life, this father was trying to lighten the tragedy–for me.
Afterward, I sat next to the grandmother. The father’s mother. She shared her son’s infectious smile. As each grandchild entered the shiva, he or she kissed the grandmother’s hand to honor her.

The grandmother told me that her son had spoken with her grandson just hours before he killed himself. He had sounded, the father thought, just fine and gave no indication of the terrible distress he was in. “But everything is from God! Everything! What can be done?”
As I sat, one of the aunts (with that same smile) asked me if I would like something hot to drink (No, thank you). And then she returned to see if I wanted something cold to drink (Yes, some water please.) And then, she brought me a full bowl of dates (I took one). And then a bowl of walnuts and a bowl of peanuts (I refused, but she insisted).

When we got up to leave, the father approached me and my friend, the only religiously-dressed people at the shiva, and said, “You know me, I put on tefillin every morning. But no more! I’m brogez with Him! I’m angry!” he said, pointing up. “If it had been me who had been taken, it would have been different. Then my wife and my son and my daughters would have sat shiva for me. I already have grandchildren. About that, I wouldn’t have complained. But this?!”
And then, his smile returned: “I’m sorry, why am I going on and on about nonsense like this…” and then he changed the topic of conversation.

Then I parted with the father and mother, giving her a hug.

And on my way out, I thought about my conversation last week with my dear sister-in-law, Catherine, while visiting her family in Montreal. Catherine has an unusual profession; she is a death doula. That means that like a birth doula provides guidance and assistance to mothers while bringing a new soul into the world, death doulas provide guidance and assistance to dying people as their souls prepare to leave the world.
Catherine chose this profession because, when she moved to Canada from her native Germany to marry my husband’s brother, she discovered, after experiencing a late miscarriage, that Canadians are very uncomfortable talking about death and dying and grief. Canadians as well as Americans, Catherine pointed out, come from a multitude of countries, and in many cases they have left behind the cultures and traditions and religions of their countries of origin that provided age-old wisdom on how to respond to dying and death.

So now, when death approaches, Catherine explained, Americans and Canadians don’t know what to do. They are like deer caught in the headlights. Frozen in fear. Or more accurately, fleeing in fear. Instead of letting themselves mourn, relatives rush through the grieving process, in a race to “get over it.” Cremate (it’s cheaper!), have a “life celebration” (why be sad when we can celebrate grandma’s life?) and then get back to work the next day (someone’s got to pay the bills).

And wiping away my tears with a tissue, I felt awe for the wisdom of our own Jewish traditions. A funeral, kaddish, and shiva provide structure, community, and comfort when death strikes. And they provide time and space to grieve, and to share that grief with others. Not just in a race to “get over it” but to go through it, fully. To heal and to grow.

May this dear family be comforted from Heaven, and know no more suffering.

2 comments

  1. Beth Berman

    The community we made aliyah from in New Jersey recently suffered the death from cancer of a five-year-old. She had been sick for many years, and her young friends and their families had undertaken many mitzvah projects on her behalf (checkout Love for Sophie). The shul sent out the link to this booklet, beautifully and sensitively written. I thought it was worth sharing with you, and Jewish Moms everywhere. http://inourheartsproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/shiva-booklet-1.pdf
    May we only share smachot.

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