No tear goes unnoticed are the words of a parent whose son died at the age of 26 leaving behind a wife and three children.
Forty-eight parents attended a weekend retreat at OHEL’s Camp Kaylie discussing the painful loss of an adult child. Led by Dr. Norman Blumenthal, OHEL’s Director of Trauma and Bereavement and Tzivy Reiter, Director, the group discussions focused on loss, grief and resilience.
What brought these individuals and couples together was a sense of shared grief. All their adult children died between the ages of 21 and 43. Four couples had lost two adult children. One couple lost four children to a rare Ashkenazic genetic syndrome.
In Pirkei Avot: Ethics of Our Fathers it states, “do not comfort him when his dead relative is standing in front of him (4:18). The explanation is that a person who is experiencing such deep sadness cannot be consoled until after the funeral when the mourning period begins.
It is said that there can be no greater grief than that of losing a child. Who would want to debate that point.
The conversation amongst these couples, some who lost a child this past year, others whose adult son or daughter died more than fifteen years ago, was amongst the most powerful we have witnessed in groups.
What made it so?
Participants spoke about the shared loss. Every person understood each other’s pain. People respected what every other parent said concerning their loss, irrespective of how they experienced the tragic death of their child, whether it was sudden, or due to an illness, by accidental drug overdose, or a suicide. This is true empathy.
Conversations about the surviving son-in-law or daughter-in-law remarrying were difficult. Of course you want to see your young grandchildren happy and that means ‘permitting’ and even encouraging your son-in-law or daughter-in-law to remarry, most especially if they have very young children. That is only natural and healthy to ensure the children thrive. But it also brings a tinge of pain as your grandchildren take on your daughter-in-law’s new husband’s surname. Your grandchildren may wear the same raiment’s as before, but you feel as if their soul changed. After all, what does a person own but his name. Tov Shem Tov MiShemen Tov. A good name is more valuable than fine oil.
Then there is the complex issue of how long to talk about your adult son or daughter who passed away? And what happens if you feel your family members or friends or coworkers don’t want to hear about it? Or no one asks you questions about your child. Your family or friends or even your spouse seem to have moved, on but you have not. Does grief have a time period?
There were some in the group who were able to speak with Simchas HaChaim, with a sense of comfort and equanimity about their children who died in the recent past, while others continued to experience a constant state of sadness and inconsolability for their child who had died many years earlier.
The common denominator emanating from the group was that shared experiences build support and resilience. Resilience is the inner ability to bounce back from a traumatic event. How did this group who experienced such trauma in their life find comfort in each other?
Many commented about their reluctance to attend this weekend retreat. Who would understand their sorrow? Who is interested in their story? After attending to their own enormous pain, would they truly want to listen to anyone else’s story of loss?
By Saturday night after spending 24 hours together, every individual and every couple commented that not only did their reluctance to attend dissipate, they felt a special camaraderie within the group. Participants commented that OHEL’s caring enough to plan such a weekend retreat, was in itself comforting even prior to any conversation or group session.
What can we learn from this?
People who experience loss, any loss at any age, travel an individual personal path. Every parent is interested in hearing a good story about their child, how his or her friends knew their child, how they impacted people, how they laughed, lived and loved. They want to know that their child is not forgotten. They’re happy to hear their name mentioned. They don’t want anyone to ask stupid questions. We all understand what this means.
A woman called into a radio show on Memorial Day. She wondered why people say Happy Memorial Day? She lost her husband in the Vietnam War in 1968. For fifty-one years, people have said to her Happy Memorial Day. Her husband died, why is it referred to as a happy day? She successfully raised her children. She wasn’t angry, she just felt the day wasn’t referred to properly, respectfully. The day, she felt, should be referred to as Have a Memorable Memorial Day.
That comment may sum up the feelings of many who have lost a child. Share a memory of their child. If you offer to help the parent in any way, be sure it is practical and you can actually do it. Mention it at the appropriate time. Don’t say anything foolish. Follow the Golden Rule.
Resilience also emanates from group strength. Klay Thompson of the famed basketball Golden State Warriors was asked immediately following his teams fifth consecutive Western Conference Championship what he credited it to? Thompson said, “the team’s resiliency”. Team members supported each other, kept the team strong when one player faltered – unyielding support in the face of adversity.
You can be very instrumental in helping to strengthen a person’s resilience just knowing when to be quiet. V’Yidom Ahron, and Ahron was silent, and we don’t know what his wife Elisheva said when she lost her two sons Nadav and Avihu. What we do know is there are important times for us to be quiet and it may be the most important support we can provide. Not the silence borne of indifference, but the wisdom of knowing when there are no words. The silence that can bear to be in the presence of unfathomable pain. This is not only related to a parent who has lost a child. It can be applicable anytime a family member or friend experience trauma, sadness, or a difficult transition in life. Notice their tears and respond with an empathetic word, gesture, or silence.
There will be a time and place for you to offer support to a person in need. Be prepared to provide it. There will be a time and place that each of us will be in some need to receive support. Know how to accept it. Empathy. Resilience. Support. It may be offered by an individual. Or we may absorb its trickle-down effect from group strength with painful moments somewhat alleviated. The eye and ear may see and hear what the heart yearns to feel.