Written by Barbara Rush
Introduction by Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz in Jerusalem
The Talmud says when you visit the sick you take away one sixtieth of their pain, but it does not say this about comforting the bereaved... we cannot restore the loss or sew over the gaping hole… yet all of us find ourselves in a position of witnessing another person’s loss, be it of a close friend, relative or distant acquaintance, neighbor or co-worker and may wish we had some guidance as to what gestures or words might be comforting and which would just exacerbate the pain. With all our good intentions to help, we may feel awkward, anxious or helpless, and this discomfort might cause us to avoid the people who most need our support. Here are some personal thoughts by folk scholar, storyteller and teacher Barbara Rush that touch on her relationship with self, family, friends, community and God:
“Dead! My child is dead!” Those are hard words to say.
Twenty months ago my only daughter, Avi, (Hebrew for Avigayil, my father’s joy), who was 48, fell asleep at the wheel. She left five children. In that split second my life, my world, changed ---never, ever to be the same.
At first we were overwhelmed with calls, e-mails, hugs, offers of food and other tangible comfort - at least by most people. But, to our shock, others went out of their way to cross the street, to not talk to us or be near us. It was almost as if our child's death were contagious! Some “friends” totally disappeared from our lives: no calls, no contact. When, later, I confronted some of them, I was told that they were embarrassed and just didn't know what to say.
Almost fourteen years ago my daughter's darling five-year-old son, Matan (Hebrew for gift), died in an accident. Some weeks after the funeral, on the west coast, my husband Don and I, now back at home on the east coast, received a distressing call from one of Avi’s relatives. It seemed that Avi had gone to the cemetery to sleep and “be” with her child. Distraught and concerned about both her sanity and the family she left, I called Linda J., the most marvelous grief counselor and minister, with whose friendship and wisdom we were, and are, blessed. I fully expected her to say that someone should go to the cemetery and drag Avi home- to her husband and children. Instead, Linda said,” YOU are not to judge. YOU are to support.”
How many times since have those words resonated in my ears and in my very being! I had just been taught one of the most important lessons in life: No one knows how someone else feels. No one can judge the feelings of others. We are here to support. We are here “to be there” for someone in need.
This is a very difficult mandate, as these needs and feelings change often and unpredictably. After Avi died, Linda came running to our house. She came “to be” with us - to listen and not to judge. “Are you angry?” she asked. Don replied quickly, “Why should I be angry? We certainly aren’t angry at her; she didn't want to die.” I concurred. We had many emotions, but anger was not one of them. Linda listened. She said nothing, but she must have surmised that someday our feelings would change...
For months we gathered every photo of Avi, from birth onward, and also every trinket that had been part of her life. In this way we were able to hang on to her, and to provide her children with something concrete to hold on to. I was particularly fond of a certain photo that exhibited her infectious smile.
But one day, out of the blue, I threw the photo, frame and all, at my husband. “Take it out of here!” I shrieked. “I’m so angry I could throw the picture against the wall!” Yes, I was furious at her for leaving us. Don did not judge. He removed the photo and came back to hug me. (The photo has since gone back to its place of honor.)
Losing a child brings with it pain that is beyond description, a sense of loss and sadness that cannot be put into words. This puts me in the position of not always knowing how to respond to others. So when people say: “I know how you feel” or “I can imagine how you feel,” what should I say? In order not to hurt the other's feelings, I used to say nothing---or I would offer a feeble expression of thanks. But now I tell the truth: “I love you and I appreciate your kindness AND you cannot know how I feel or imagine how I feel.”
When people say: “It’s been three months. Time to get over it,” what should I say? I want to tell them that I'll never get over it, that I intend to get through it but I'll never get over it. How should I answer when someone says: “It's time to put the pictures away.”? Should I be honest and say: “The nerve of you! I’ll put the photos away when I’M ready!” And what reply should I give when someone says: “If I were in your place, I would kill myself!” ? And what should I reply to the following words , “ ---but you have other children.”? I would like to retort, “Which finger would you cut off your hand?”
And now I wonder about people who, after almost two years, no longer call to see how we REALLY are. They may call to ask about this and that but they don't want to hear about our inner feelings. Is it wrong for me to expect people to keep inquiring? Am I expecting too much? Perhaps I myself am judging others, exactly as I try not to do.
Another difficult aspect is feeling cut off from the concerns and routines of friends and contemporaries. I don't know what to do when I listen to people discussing their child’s birthday party, or the food at the local restaurant, or other such things. I want to scream, “This is stupidity! How can I listen to this trivia?” But didn’t I used to talk about the same things? And don’t they have a right to enjoy the simple pleasures of life?
Theologically, I feel offended when people tell me: “She's gone to a better place.” What's wrong with this one? Wasn’t it good enough for her? If the “other” place is better, why don’t we all take our own lives and go there?
I know that there are people, both Jews and Christians, who truly believe that their children’s deaths are part of God's plan, even if they can’t understand it now, and that their children are truly in a “better place.” How comforting it must be to have that belief! But I don’t have it--- and many rabbis I know don’t share it---and I doubt that I ever will. Is there hope for me?
And what about God? Since Matan’s and Avi’s deaths, I have had trouble with God. I cannot believe that God can cause such misfortune, for then why would He or She cause mine? And, I cannot believe that God can cure or alleviate or avert misfortune, for why would God not have done so? I do still believe in some kind of Power, perhaps more of a Creator than a micro-manager, but if God is not all powerful or chooses not to be, then what is God for us, and why pray? Does God hear us, and where am I in God’s scenario? Where is God in mine? I have stopped going to synagogue, a place where I grew up and where I love the liturgy and the feeling of being with other Jews. It feels hypocritical when I don’t believe in what I’m praying. How can I return?
Being a storyteller, I end with a story: After Matan was killed, and after we were back at home, we could not bear to see our family, his parents and siblings, in such pain. We sent daily gift packages, wrote daily letters, made daily calls to the family. If only we could say the right thing, send the right package, write the right note, we thought, we would be able to take away their pain. Then one day, we discovered, in counseling, that we could not remove the pain. They would have to do that by themselves---or possibly live with it forever? I was devastated. What did that mean? If we couldn’t remove at least some of their pain, what role did we have in the picture? We felt helpless.
Then, for my birthday, I received a book of stories. One was an anecdote by Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, a psychologist in New York, whose father-in-law was an anesthesiologist in a N.Y. Hospital. (I paraphrase.) It was his job to give anesthesia to an eleven-year-old cancer patient named B. But one day B. arrived with a bad cold. “B.,” said the doctor, “Today I cannot give you the anesthesia during your treatment because it will make you ill. But I CAN hold you. And every time during the treatment when you feel pain, I will hold you, and we will get through this together.” And so they did!
After I read the story, I called to Don, “That’s it! That’s what we’re doing, we’re holding them, and holding is a good thing!” So I came to see that what you cannot cure, you can help others endure. Of course, we continued to do so, as we continue to hold others.
As a storyteller, I firmly believe that a person does not choose a story. Instead, the story chooses you when you need it. This anecdote chose me when I needed it, and I hope it will help others in their time of need.
I have no magic answers to alleviating the pain of a child’s death.
I know that some of the comments and strategies that I found abrasive or offensive would actually comfort people of other cultures, backgrounds and worldviews. But I hope that by sharing my own responses, dilemmas and scars, I will encourage people to think carefully before they try to offer what they think are words of comfort. Sometimes a simple hug or “We are thinking of you…” or the truthful “I want to say something but I don’t know what to say” can do more than lofty phrases that try to make sense of the impossible.
I wish also to assure bereaved families that whatever reactions they have are perfectly valid, perfectly okay, and to encourage them to ask for the help they do need, whenever they need it, be it help with housework, meals, a call to get them out of bed in the morning, a buddy to walk with or an address of a support group…It’s very difficult for me personally to ask for help, but I am learning, and I hope others will learn, to say, “I need you to tell me something about my child I may not know, or to come and stay with me on my child’s birthday,” etc.
For many months my brain was anesthetized. I was so involved in getting through each day and in trying to “figure it out” that I did not reach out to others in pain. Yet slowly, slowly, I found myself hugging a stranger in a hospital waiting room, sending notes to strangers whose children’s deaths were noted in the newspaper, etc. I seek to make that supportive call to others, especially those in my support group, because THEIR support - as well as that of friends and family - has been absolutely invaluable in helping me, not to get over my tragedy but to get through it.
It is only natural that people who have suffered loss seek help, in addition to the comfort of friends and family, in some other way: professional counseling, medication, strenuous exercise, etc. ---or any combination of the above. My salvation has come through a support group, my new family, without whose providing me with a “SAFE” place to cry and be myself, and to learn to let others cry and be themselves, I would not have survived.
More about that wonderful group will have to wait for another blog...
How I wish that I could see my child once more, hold her one more time, speak to her for just another moment! How I wish that I were not in this miserable club of bereaved parents! When, every day I become increasingly aware of more parents in this terrible situation, I feel compelled to find some way to turn my tragedy into some value for others.
Being a storyteller and writer, as well as a wounded mother, I lead workshops for children, families, and professionals, at bereavement centers, bereavement camps, and hospitals, on using stories as a focus for healing. Sample stories will follow in another blog ….