“First, I want to thank you. I didn’t choose to devote my life to helping people who are grieving, so I’d like to thank those of you who did. It was a privilege to spend the past 48 hours with you. Since we’re at the end of a heavy and important conference, I’d like to lighten things up by talking about children and death.”
Ovdan Eilat, the International Conference on Loss, Bereavement & Human Resilience, is ending as I write this. It was a difficult but valuable glimpse into the lives of the grieving and those who support them.
“I’m here to share my story,” I said, “and to discuss my new children’s book, If You Write My Story, and what I learned about grief before, during, and after writing and sharing it.
“My story with grief began more than forty years ago, when my brother drowned. He was four, I was three. Fast-forward forty years, and I have three kids. They’re adults now. Our middle child is named after my brother. For as long as I remember, I’d had a burning desire to name my son after my brother. We went to Ashkelon for Shabbat so we could visit my mother in the hospital. When we got there after Shabbat lunch, we were told that she had passed away.
“Walking away from the hospital in shock, I realized my kids didn’t have that many happy memories of my mom. They knew a woman who suffered from acute anxiety. Over the Shiva, I realized that my friends all had wonderful memories of my mom. One of my friends, who was an “out-of-towner” going to college in New York, said that they had many people who hosted them for Shabbat, but only my mom felt like a mom to them. My mom loved when anybody had a wedding or a child. She’d take pictures at weddings and sometimes get the people an album within a week, while they waited months for the professionals to deliver ‘the real album.’ She knew everybody’s kids names and birthdays and what they were up to, and she’d always share her joy with them.
“But my kids didn’t have these stories, and frankly I was having difficulties accessing these stories myself. So I started writing compulsively, over a hundred pages, free association of thoughts and memories about my mom and my brother.
“Then I realized that many people had the same needs that my kids and I did, so I wrote a book to help people like us.
“If You Write My Story I will not die,”
my grandpa said, “so do not cry.”
There was a twinkle in his eye.
“If you write my story, I will not die.”
“When our bodies die, what might live on? Christians focus a lot on the immortal soul. Jews focus more on children. A quirk in the language in Genesis led rabbis two thousand years ago to say ‘Jacob didn’t die. So long as his children live, so does he.’ Our stories can live on too. Our life work. And that’s what the book focuses on.
I showed the book’s pages, how the kids of different ages were writing, drawing, or making a video about their grandpa.
“What’s worse than losing somebody you love?” I asked. “Losing somebody you should love, but somehow don’t, not as much as you should. The mom in the book represents those of us who have those conflicted feelings.
“The mom and her father have their reconciliation.
“Everything I read about helping children through grief says you have to make clear that the person is dead. The biggest concern I’ve heard about this book is that it suggests that the person isn’t dead. But the book repeatedly makes clear that the person is gone, and only the memories remain.
I’m more proud of you than I can say.
This has been the perfect day.”
He kissed us all and told the kids to play.
And then that night, he passed away.
“He lied to us,” Michael said,
“We wrote his story, but still he’s dead!”
“He lives,” Mom said, her eyes all red,
“He’s in our hearts and in our heads.”
“But in this conference I’ve heard a lot about grieving people talking about God, always in the masculine, and always regarding the death. Why did He do this? Or not prevent this? Is He vindictive? Uncaring? Impotent? Non-existent?
“I think it’s helpful to think of God in the feminine here. God holding our hands and helping us through this. There’s plenty of precedent in Judaism to using the feminine when referring to God, the Shechina, the Holy Spirit.
“The grandfather made a video for the kids to see after he passed.
If you received this electronic letter,
it means that I did not get better.
If God exists, by now I’ve met Her
If She tries to bring you joy, please let Her.
“And I bet that if I asked Her
She’d ask you to add your chapter,
full of love and joy and laughter.
that’s my happily ever after.
“If you continue my story I will not have died.
If you use my story as a guide.
If you tell your kids how we lived and why,
then what we lived for will survive
“You wrote my story I did not die
This was not a joke and not a lie
Through your words and deeds live I
I am the world’s luckiest guy.”
Often, grieving children want to share their story and talk about the person who died.
- Having an opportunity to tell his or her story is often beneficial to a child’s healing process.
- Sharing memories about the person who died is also very important.
- Grieving children don’t want to forget the person who died — they are also worried that others will forget their person.
“Helping their loved ones not be forgotten also helps kids know that when they die, they won’t be forgotten either. That’s what this book tries to facilitate.
“I got feedback the other day from a mom who got the book.
“My father in law is very ill with Alzheimers and my 6-year-old daughter is afraid of him. She is afraid of being sick, of death, of older people who are infirm. Reading this book has started some very meaningful conversations with my daughter and has eased a lot of her fears. She now eagerly wants to hear and record stories of her grandfather and his adventures in life.”
“So that was great to hear, and that’s obviously what the book is going for.
“The book exists in Hebrew too, though only in electronic form for now, until I know there’s enough demand to start printing copies.
“How can I help you?” I asked. “I’d love to give you complimentary copies if it may help you or anyone you work with. And if you know how to get this to a lot of people who can use it, please let me know. My gmail is gil.reich, and you can reach me through the If You Write My Story website.”
I was quite happy that almost everybody in the room asked for a copy, and some had ideas of people they thought might want to buy in bulk.
It was a great and affirming experience. I’d like to thank Dr. Eti Ablin, who was particularly encouraging, and everybody else who ran this great and helpful conference. And if this book can help anybody you know through their grief, please reach out to me.