Sitting shiva for a childhood lost to sexual abuse  

Some years ago, I observed a week sitting shiva for my childhood — for the child I once was, for the sexual abuse I had suffered, and for the family I had lost. Each day, I sat in meditation, went for a hike with a friend, talked about my memories, and shared old photographs. During that time, I also wrote about my grief.

This piece came from that week of ritual. I have never published it before. I am ready to do so now.

* * *

I write this piece not knowing to whom I will show it, or whether I will show it to anyone at all.

I feel that I have to let someone know. I have to let them know that I’m grieving the death of the child I once was. I need to let someone know the story of how that child died, and how much I loved her, and how much I miss her. And I need to remember her and honor her — not only her death, but her life, and the life of the world she once lived in. This is her memorial.

I’m thinking of a picture of my brother and me. I’m 9 years old, and he’s 5 and a half, and we’re buddies. The pain is already there, but we can still outrun it, because we have each other. A precious photograph. I write on a piece of paper, I’m missing those children. I’m missing the children we were. I put it next to the photograph. I’m mourning the death of my childhood.

How did it die, anyway? Everyone’s childhood ends. Why is the loss of my childhood so painful? I remember when it ended.

Can you listen? Can you hear how it ended?

It ended when I was 11, and my father came into my room and touched me in a way my little girl’s body knew he shouldn’t. And I died — I held my breath, every sensation in my body went numb, and I didn’t want to be in my body anymore. I didn’t want to feel anything anymore. Isn’t that what dying is? You don’t breathe, and you don’t want your body anymore?

Death came and got me when I was in my bed, and I was 11. It was in the figure of a man who said he was my father, but he couldn’t have been my father. He wasn’t the one I loved — the one who threw baseballs into the air for me to catch, the one who let me fly like an angel on the soles of his feet. My father died that day, and another man took his place.

I knew that I couldn’t tell my mother. She’d say it was nothing or tell me that it was my fault.

And I couldn’t tell my brother — my best friend, my ally. Not about this. There were no words, and, so, my best friend was gone.

In that moment, all was lost. I wasn’t a little girl anymore. I was gone. And there was no one left to mourn me.

Am I mourning my own death? How is that possible? The fearless little girl who thought she could outrun the pain — she died. I’ve never been that fearless child again. How do I honor that child? How do I honor the child my brother was? His childhood ended, too, on a day I don’t know and can’t mark with ritual or tears. How do I honor the innocent, shining, beautiful little boy whose birth I awaited with such longing and such excitement? How do I honor the love we had for each other?

How do I honor the love we had for our parents? How do I honor their lives before they died inside, before they decided nothing mattered, before they took my brother and me down into the depths with them?

When it’s dark outside and the house is quiet, I’d give anything to be back there and be 9 years old again. I want just one more year of innocence. I want just one more year of feeling that we’ll all live forever, and I’ll never lose anyone. I don’t ever want to be 11. I just want to be 9 years old, forever.

Can I bear to remember the child I was? Can her presence return after all these decades of forgetting? That child is gone, and when she died, her world died with her. But if I can remember her, and love her, and embrace her, through all the pain of this longing, perhaps we can grieve the passing of our world together.

So this is my hope and my intention: to carry with me forever the presence of that 9-year-old girl who threw the best fastball on the block, and climbed trees, and ran with her brother, until it was dark, and our mother called us home.

About the Author
Rachel Cohen is a survivor of clergy abuse in the Jewish community and the founder of Shema Koleinu, an organization dedicated to providing support and healing to Jewish adults abused by clergy. (To learn more about the work of Shema Koleinu, visit their website at Rachel is currently enrolled in the Jewish Studies program at Gratz College, where she is working toward her third Master's degree.
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