The past eight days I rode through South Africa on a jeep with my wife and another couple who have heard, held and hugged us the past year and a half since my son, Ariel z”l, completed his life by suicide. The rangers, aside from being wonderful people, were exceptionally knowledgeable and opened my eyes and heart to the exquisite beauty of the Bush. The solitude and quiet of the vast, open terrain were meditative and the beauty of the sunrises and sunsets were awe inspiring. To see up close – very close – extremely powerful and rather large elephants, buffaloes, rhinos, leopards, lions and other animals was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It was beyond words; so ineffable will have to suffice.
Before we arrived in the Bush, we spent a day in Johannesburg and four days in Cape Town. The first and only time I dreamt about Ariel z”l up until this trip, is when I saw him looking happy and well shaven. We jumped up and down hugging each other and I screamed out, “You are alive!” He responded, “What -you’re not updated?” At the Hazakra (service that takes place at the grave on the anniversary of a person’s death), I analyzed this dream by noting that the Hebrew word for update means – until here. I believe Ariel z”l knew how much pain and anguish he was causing me, my wife, family and friends, but was adamant that he did what he needed to do. The pain of the OCD related depression was too much – עדכאן- until here. He had to stop it. And, he did… That’s the only real solace of this painful ordeal.
The dream I had in Johannesburg was very different. Only days before, some members of the support group that I attend for parents who have lost children to suicide, were adamant that they could never be happy again. Many of us, including myself, rushed to support them trying, in vain, to convince them that the conflictual and diametrically opposed feelings of sadness and happiness can co-exist (גם וגם – this and also that). The group moderators challenged us to embrace the pain of our fellow members instead of trying to convince them to think and feel differently. They also suggested, and this hit home, that this question – can we be happy after the worst trauma imaginable – plagues each and every one of us.
In the dream I had in Johannesburg, I was sitting on a couch when Ariel z”l, who looked about 10 years old, sat down next to me. I asked him in Hebrew ‘How are you.? Ariel z”l calmly answered, אני בסדר גמור – I’m good, really good.” After waking the tears flowed. While my wife held and comforted me, I grasped the significance of the dream. Ariel z”l was giving me permission to enjoy my vacation in South Africa; to let go and be happy despite my sadness and longing for him.
Later that day, I came upon a beautiful rock and brought it back into the jeep. I said to myself that this will be my gift to Ariel z”l for giving me permission to enjoy this vacation. Amidst the beauty of the Bush, my mind jumped thousands of kilometers straight to the Kiryat Anavim Cemetery where I imagined placing the rock on Ariel’s z”l grave. As the tears flowed, I felt my wife’s hand on my shoulder and my friend’s hand on my back.
Being held and hugged is the best way to help people in pain. The words of comfort, often well-intentioned, are often ineffective at best and at times painful to hear. Hear, Hold, Hug is my best advice for people wishing to comfort a friend in pain. With that being said, I am very cognizant that people mourn differently, so I am not saying this is the only way to comfort. It is not ‘the truth,’ it is my truth.
The ranger turned to me and said, “You okay?” Thinking that he had no idea what I was going through, I later learned that he lost his brother six years previously in a Bush related jeep accident. We hugged and I told him about the dream and the rock. I shared with him that during our visit in Soweto I saw a picture of a cyclist on a dilapidated shack with the phrase, “Riding Through.” I told the ranger how much this phrase reflected my determination to “ride through” the pain and to enjoy this vacation and the blessings of life. He later shared with me how much the concept of riding through touched him and, how it will help him as he continues on his journey of living life with pain and happiness coexisting.
The pain is like walking through life carrying a backpack full of rocks. Sometimes it’s unbearably heavy, other times if feels a bit lighter. Then, unexpectedly, to paraphrase a friend who also lost her son to suicide, the jagged edge of a rock jabs you. I will add, the rock pierces your body and soul.
I would suggest that here are no defined stages to grief; just a series of ongoing cycles. Much like my bike riding, there are many hills to climb. Sometimes you fall; sometimes you get a flat. But you get back on the bike. Then, after the hard work of climbing the hill, there is the incredible sense of freedom when you fly down the other side. Before Ariel z”l died, as I was speeding down a hill, I would often yell out, “I’m alive.”
Now, although in pain and carrying that backpack, I ride through – I’m still alive.