After the Death– Coping with the Loss of a Child after Shiva©
I recently spoke with a colleague about a group of congregants who have an unfortunate connection – parents who have lost children. He told me a story of a rabbi who had lost his child. This rabbi had just started his work at a new congregation. For those who are not rabbis, there is nothing more joyous than the beginning of your time working at a new congregation – your life and work is pregnant with possibilities. You truly believe that the skies are the limit.
And then, tragedy struck – the rabbi and his family lost their thirteen-year-old son. If anyone could handle the loss of a child, it must be a rabbi, right? They have more faith than anyone, more experience than anyone when it comes to coping with loss. How did he handle this loss and overcome tragedy? The rabbi told me the following: “He could not remember one thing from that first year. He walked through a fog and literally could not recall what happened.”
In the book of Leviticus, a book not known for its narratives, we read one of the most chilling accounts in the Torah – the deaths of Aaron’s firstborn sons, Nadav and Avihu. The story begins on a positive note. It is the eighth day after the establishment of the Mishkan – it is Aaron’s first day on the job. The rules have been given, the priests have been trained, and now we reached the moment when we are ready to put the well-laid plans into action in order to fulfill one purpose – because today, the Lord will appear to you. And so Aaron and his sons go through this holy process, in exactly the way they were told, and in verse 24, we see the results: 24 Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.
Everything seems to be going according to plan, except, in the very next chapter, everything goes terribly wrong.
וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי־אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם׃
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them.
וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה׃
And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the LORD.
Why did this happen? The commentators differ on the reasoning. Professor James A. Diamond writes, “Opinions range across a wide spectrum of “crimes” we might classify in modern terms as political, cultic, ethical, mystical, or even breaches of social convention. They include rebellion to usurp Moses’ and Aaron’s authority, disrespect, drunkenness, bachelorhood, childlessness, wearing of improper priestly vestments, sacral procedural anomalies like omitting the washing of hands, unobstructed viewing of the divine presence, extending even to as minor an ethical infraction as discourtesy in failing to consult each other prior to their dedication.”
As I have studied this story over the years, I have often asked myself, which explanation is correct? Here’s a little secret regarding commentators and their multiple explanations: the more explanations you give, the less sure anyone is of the true meaning.
Professor Diamond continues, “These numerous solutions reflect attempts to come to terms with a gut-wrenching narrative involving divinely sanctioned deaths of the most prominent spiritual figures, struck down violently at a moment of supreme spiritual achievement. This frenzy of midrashic activity reflects the age-old theological enterprise known as theodicy, the justification of a benevolent God by reconciling His goodness with what appears as injustice and undeserved suffering in the world.”
Over the years, I have counseled families who have lost children, but even more than that, I have counseled more distant family members, friends, and community members who want to help the bereaved but don’t know how. In cases where the death is mysterious, they want to know what happened: “Rabbi, did the child overdose, was he or she troubled?” The answer (after that is none of your business) – does how that child died really matter? Some want to comfort the bereaved by telling them that their child is in a better place. “Rabbi, does Judaism believe in the afterlife?” The answer – is where that child is in the afterlife really matter to their parents at this horrific moment?
Moses makes an attempt of his own to make sense of this tragedy: “This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” Aaron, your children died for the greater good, so God could be sanctified – don’t you see?!? Their lives mattered!
But Aaron’s response – two words, Yayidom Aaron – And Aaron was silent. There is simply no response. In other words, it doesn’t matter if his children had good or bad intentions – he still lost them in an instant. Perhaps his silence was a response to Moshe – I will remain silent in solidarity with my sons who no longer have a voice.
Here we learn that silence can actually convey many messages.
So what can we do for our friends and family who have lost children?
Shiva is a gift not just for the family who is mourning, but also the community. The command to be silent in a shiva home gives us all the permission not to rationalize the deaths of their loved ones. It saves us from saying the wrong things at the wrong time.
But what about after shiva? On the proverbial eighth day, when everyone goes to their homes, but the family remains in mourning. My first piece of advice – remember them.
I don’t believe that time heals all wounds – some wounds can reopen at times. When a family sits at a holiday table, sees their child’s friends graduating from college, getting married, having children.
Later on in Leviticus, we are reminded once again of Aaron’s two sons.
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה אַחֲרֵי מוֹת שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי־יְהוָה וַיָּמֻתוּ׃
The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD. (Leviticus 16:1)
Aaron, the high priest, is about to perform the most important ritual of the year, the ritual of the two goats on the holiest day of the year. Why does the text bring up the deaths of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were killed by God when they offered an ‘alien or strange fire’?
The Zohar comments on the first verse which recounts the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two sons. It pictures God saying to Aaron and to all of us, “Engage in the study of the death of these righteous, and it will be as if you are offering a sacrifice for your atonement.”
When we study their lives, it will bring us atonement, we call it Kaparah, a full cleansing, we get to start anew. But no parent who has lost a child wants to start anew as if that child never existed. Rather, we have to look at atonement in a different way: ‘at one ment’ – at one ment, being at one with these souls who have departed earth, but are still with their parents in everything they do, at every moment, and especially at moments like: their birthdays; their yahrtzeits, the days they transitioned to the world to come; holidays where they occupied a seat at the table like at the Passover seder.
So set up a reminder on your calendar – the day their child was born, and the day their child died. And call them – wish them a happy birthday, and wish them condolences on that day. Send them flowers or a meal. An email or a letter. A donation to a worthy cause. Also, remember that these days are unbelievably hard for the parents. It may be five, ten, twenty, or thirty years after their child passed, but for them, it is that day again. So remember to cut them some slack.
But remember them.
Another piece of advice – you can’t fix everything, you can’t fix everyone. Paula Stephens, a parent who lost a child wrote the following: “Every grieving parent must find a way to continue to live with loss, and it’s a solitary journey. We appreciate your support and hope you can be patient with us as we find our way. Please: don’t tell us it’s time to get back to life, that’s it’s been long enough, or that time heals all wounds. We welcome your support and love, and we know sometimes it hard to watch, but our sense of brokenness isn’t going to go away.”
One final piece of advice I read: when you’re in town, visit the grave of the child. A mother named Autumn Robinson wrote the following: “Knowing that someone cared enough to go by with some fresh flowers, in our case, a rock, and to clean off the grave will make a person who has lost a child feel ridiculously loved and appreciated. There’s not even a real word for the feeling that this elicits in a person who has lost a child, a mix of sadness and shock and thankfulness.”
One of our congregants who lost a child said something interesting to me: why do we read about this every year? Because on Shmini, we revisit the loss and the lives of Nadav and Avihu. We are returning to their graves, letting Aaron and Elisheva (click here for a dramatic retelling of the incident from Elisheva’s point of view), Nadav and Avihu’s mother, know that their children lived, that they mattered, and we are with them in their grief.
The story of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu are amongst the most puzzling stories in the Bible. Another mysterious story is the account of the Red Heifer, the Parah Adumah. Our Rabbis of blessed memory could not come up with an explanation for this strange ritual. The Midrash pictures King Solomon, the wisest man in the Bible saying that he understood the word of God, all of it, except for the ritual of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. But, one explanation is telling. In the Etz Chaim Chumash, we read, “the ritual’s purpose is psychological. To heal a person burdened by a sense of wrongdoing, who feels the purity of his or her soul has been compromised, we take an animal completely without blemish and sacrifice it, as if to imply that perfection does not belong in this world. Perfect creatures belong in heaven; this world is given to the inevitably flawed and compromised.”
It’s not just people who are flawed, but the world is flawed – justice and order might be the exception, not the norm. And so it is up to us to live in that uncomfortable reality. I’d like to end with the words of a mother who lost her child, Paula Stephens: “Our loss is unnatural, out-of-order; it challenges your sense of safety. You may not know what to say or do, and you’re afraid you might make us lose it. We’ve learned all of this as part of what we’re learning about grief. We will never forget our child. And in fact, our loss is always right under the surface of other emotions, even happiness. We would rather lose it because you spoke his/her name and remembered our child than try and shield ourselves from the pain and live in denial. Grief is the pendulum swing of love. The stronger and deeper the love the more grief will be created on the other side. Consider it a sacred opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with someone who have endured one of life’s most frightening events. Rise up with us.”