Nina L. Kampler

Passing over a son’s passing

Fifteen months after her son committed suicide, she is finding ways to feel less shackled to the pain
Illustrative: A young woman sits, face in her hands. (iStock)
Illustrative: A young woman sits, face in her hands. (iStock)

Fifteen months since my son’s death, I have now navigated a complete calendar cycle of holidays. My journey since the dark day of December 22, 2015 has been a reverse passover. I have traversed backwards from a better yesterday to an emptier tomorrow, with my existence split into the before and the after. I crossed from the golden promise of my full family’s future, endured a terrifying free fall through an arid wilderness, and have landed in a discomforting space where I am forever enslaved, weighted by the enormity of emptiness.

I wandered lost, not in the directional sense, but in the confusing, emerging newness of being a parent who has literally lost a son. And is struggling to sidestep the landmines of the foreign reality that I must now call life.

Well-wishers often ask how I’m doing. I think what they really want to know is “Is it humanly possible to survive the suicide of a child? Could I possibly manage if unspeakable horror strikes me?” And the answer, my retelling, my magid, is “Yes, you can”.

“I am good. Most days. Most of the time.” I engage in life paranormally, and the loss of my child in some ways allows an even deeper capacity to experience the majestic joy of being alive.

But sometimes, I falter. Sometimes I can feel him, in a way that poetically mimics the earliest moments of carrying my son, when I detected his movements 15 weeks after conception. Tiny fluttering motions, unrecognizable at first, slowly repeating into a pattern of cognition of his life stirring and growing again within me. The fetus that became the baby that became the boy that became the man, who lived for 27 years and 358 days, still moves within my soul, imperceptible to the outside world. As Judah’s death continues to change shape within me, I know that I shall be pregnant with this son until the day when I too cease breathing. He lives within me forever.

During the last summer of Judah’s life, while he was at home grappling with the raging torment afflicting his brilliant mind, there were days when I witnessed his fading and disappearing before us. One beautiful evening, I returned home to a chaotic scene of Judah’s inner turmoil erupting and pouring out into our house. It was just weeks before our daughter’s wedding. Our round kitchen table, the pedestal of our familial life for 20 years, surrounded by six evenly spaced chairs, where we gathered each weeknight with our four children for family dinner, where I convened Sunday night meetings to solicit menu requests and coordinate calendars, where we crafted projects and completed homework, was no longer intact. Our broken Judah had removed his chair, smashing it to pieces and displacing himself from our circle. It was as if he were erasing himself from his inclusion at our family table, a foreshadowing of the forever missing son at all future gatherings.

Preparing for the Passover holiday this year, I found myself repeatedly glancing into the rearview mirror of my life, hoping that it would bring focus so I could somehow steer ahead. How do I organize my Seder table when the disorder of natural life rearranges place settings? How do we gather the family that has grown smaller, with one less mouth to feed, one less bed to make? How do we celebrate when the wise, pure-hearted son who could no longer ask for help, will never again reclaim his seat.

We are a nation obsessed with numbers. Perhaps as we formed ourselves as a people in the allegorical biblical days of yore, we counted rather than read ourselves into slumber. The people of the book started as a people of numbers. God promised us that we would be as multitudinous as stars in the heavens and the grains of sand on the earth and we’ve been calculating ever since. And on this Passover holiday, so different than all other nights, we count out loud to narrate our tale: seven years of famine, ten plagues, forty years of wandering in the desert four glasses of wine, four questions. And yes, the eternal four sons.

Our people’s history is an amalgam of alternative existences. Third class slaves in one era, democratic freedom in another. Good versus evil, starvation followed by plenty. Leavened bread for 51 weeks, matzah meals for another. The earth spins, regimes evolve, borders shift, seasons flow. And what we possess today — the state of our health, the steadiness of our work, the safety of our loved ones-can disappear in a flash. It is a holiday of historical perspective that instructs us to adapt. So, while I agonizingly miss my Judah, I also have capacity to celebrate life with my husband, our children, our parents, our relatives, our friends. My sadness co-exists with mighty joy, one set of emotions intertwined with the other and forever conjoined. And in those moments when the acute sharpness of the pain forces labored breathing, I wait. And know, that this too will pass. over.

The burden of being a mother of a son who dies from suicide can never be lifted. Sadness is not weightless. It is an emotion that swoops in and pins you down and immobilizes you. But I feel less shackled to the pain if I stand up and walk with this sack of rocks strapped to my back, instead of crumbling to the ground, surrendering to its heaviness. It is not easy but practice makes it doable, and each step forward is exponentially liberating. I have the freedom to choose life and Judah continues to dwell within me. Death is viable.

About the Author
Nina Kampler is a lawyer and a retail real estate strategist living in Teaneck, New Jersey. She is married to Zvi Marans, and the mother of four children.
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