I came across this again today, and thought it worth sharing. She lost her son around the time we lost Jake and he was almost the same age. Different circumstances, same emotions.
In Hebrew, ‘simcha’ means gladness or joy. It is often used as a noun to denote any celebration because a celebration is always a cause for happiness. Simchas are usually connected with one’s children: births, Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, weddings. It is a blessing to share in other’s simchas, and of course, we invite our friends and families to share in ours.
Lately, we have been attending weddings of friends of Jake, children of friends of ours, our Rabbi’s son, whom we have known since he was a boy, and most recently a member of our shul, a young woman who has become the adopted daughter of the congregation. While we want to celebrate other’s happiness, it can be brutal for us. Especially when it’s a friend of Jake’s. Last year, I sat at a table in the back of the room at one of these gatherings and wondered where is my happiness? What will I get to celebrate with such unbridled joy as I was watching? It is all well and good to participate in other’s blessings, to wish them well on their journey to a new chapter in their lives, but I won’t have any of my own. There won’t be a wedding, a birth of a grandchild, a brit milah to revel in. There won’t be any more Colmans or Smilens to carry on our families names. What, exactly will we celebrate in the coming years?
At the wedding last week, held on the outside patio at our little shul, our rabbi asked for any Kohanim present to give the couple the three-fold Priestly Blessing. I already wanted to do it for them, and here was my chance. Not that I have any special power to confer blessings, I am merely the conduit. I stepped forward, raised my hands and suddenly it hit me, again. This was the blessing I gave Jake every time we parted those last few years. It all came rushing back and nearly overwhelmed me. Ambushed again. I paused and slowly, haltingly spoke the words in Hebrew: “May the lord bless you and protect you.” “May the lord make His face shine light upon you and be gracious unto you” “May the lord lift up His face unto you and grant you peace.” As I began the third one, my voice caught, and I could barely speak. Somehow, I managed to contain my emotions long enough to finish and turned away, tears flowing. Not exactly what you want at a wedding.
And this is my life now. Every celebration tinged with sadness. No longer able to rejoice completely in other’s simchas, searching for my own. And I have come to realize, I won’t really have any real simchas from now on. I can enjoy the moment, have a laugh with friends, appreciate beauty in art and nature, but the deep fulfillment that comes from the celebration of true joy, of watching your children make their way through life, which is a joy and a blessing unlike any other, is now denied to me.
Passover is in a couple of days. It is the holiday that commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and the creation of the Jewish People. It is one of the most solemn and at once the most joyous holidays on the calendar. It is a holiday on which I am commanded to relate the story to my children, so we never forget we were once slaves. One of my great pleasures was leading our family seder. Friends and families gathered around our table from when Jake was born up to a few years ago. It was always a lively affair with discussion, laughter, finger puppets, and Jake’s interactive 10 plagues. I relished in my duty to relate the tale to my son. It was one of my simchas.
We haven’t had a seder here for the past three years. I simply can’t bear it. We will go to some friends homes both nights, people who knew and loved Jake. They helped us get through those first horrific days, and continue to be there for us, people who are both firefighters and builders. We will sit at their tables and help tell the Passover story to their children, our surrogate sons and daughters. We will share in their simchas as they come. But for us, we will have to be content with basking in the reflected warmth of their joy.
I wish everyone a happy and meaningful Passover. May you find freedom from your own personal Egypt, whatever limitations they may be, and may you have many simchas of your own in the days and years to come.
Thoughts on the ‘aloneness’ of grief. Thank you, Rebecca for sharing this. I can only echo her sentiments. There are those of our friends who have not remained silent and continue to stand by us. The silence of others can be deafening. It is not always their ‘fault’ most people simply cannot deal with grief, their own, let alone someone else’s.
Our Western culture has inadvertently conditioned us to avoid death and grief. Our society tends to isolate those who are struggling with illness, pain, death and grief — hoping that if we don’t see their pain and struggles, the pain doesn’t exist, and won’t alter our tidy and predictable lives. We tend to behave as if death and pain are contagious diseases, ones that if we stay away from, we can avoid contracting ourselves.
I don’t believe this insensitivity is intentional. Society has not prepared us for how to deal with pain and loss. We are brought up to believe that life will remain predictable and under our control. Then when the unexpected, death or illness, does happen in our lives, we are ill-equipped to deal with the emotional pain, and upheaval, that it brings. Society subliminally sends us the message that we are expected to quietly bear our pain…
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January is almost over, so if I am going to write a post on the New Year and the past Holiday season, I’d better get on it before it is next year already.
We made it through the Holidays basically unscathed. It seemed at every turn, I set out to write something about whichever holiday was nearing. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve, and yet, when I sat down at the computer and stared at the blank screen, nothing really significant came forth. So maybe that is what I can talk about.
It has been three years since Jake died and took so much of our lives with him. Each year, I have taken stock of what progress, if any, I made that year, and what, if anything, new things I learned about myself or my progress on this journey, or the people around me, or anything, really. And as I think about the past year, and where we are, I realize I have no new brilliant insights to share. No revelations on how to deal with the crushing sadness I carry around with me daily. Oh, I can laugh, have a ‘good time’, smile, crack a joke, the mask fits pretty good now, but the melancholy is so close to the surface it doesn’t take much to have it bubble up in the most unlooked for places.
Humans can get “used to” nearly anything, and this year I have gotten more used to not having Jake in our lives, if only by the most minute of increments. We are “people who have lost a child”, and I am settling into that label more and more. I know many such people both personally and virtually, some farther along, some newly minted. Frankly, I hate it. I hate not having my son in this world anymore. I may have “accepted” it, resigned to it is more like it, I may be a bit more “used to it”, but I still can’t quite believe it. I will be in the WTF stage for the rest of my life.
What we are doing is getting by. Just getting by, day to day. Perhaps that is the most significant thing I can share. I’m getting by. Doing the best I can. Some days I still want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head. Some days I am exhausted from the moment I wake up. I heard a proverb somewhere that I paraphrase: When the soul is exhausted, sleep does no good. And my soul is exhausted. Some days are better. I can be somewhat productive, I can even fool myself into thinking I’m happy for the moment. I wish I could take that with me for the days when I feel like shit. But it really is day by day.
What does help is activity. We were up north last week for a trade show and to visit some friends. One of whom will be helping us plan our estate. After all, I’m not getting any younger. The difficult part is that we have no heir. Our family tree has had its branches lopped off. No one to watch out for us as we get older. No one to take care of our affairs, no one to whom we will bequeath our family heirlooms. So what do we do? I guess we’ll figure that out as we go.
So that’s it. My observations of the new year. Not much here, I know. The days crawl by, the weeks flit by, the months rush by. Three years. Soon it will be five, ten, twenty. What new insights will reveal themselves in the coming years? I’ll let you know when I find out. For now, I’m just getting by.
I have been kicking ideas for a post around for the previous few weeks, but couldn’t quite coalesce them into a coherent form. I am still looking for something to bring these random and disparate thoughts and ideas together. So in lieu of that, I may just ramble on and let them sort themselves out.
Monday was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, literally the “head of the year”.Many of the things I wrote 2 years ago still hold true. The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are supposed to be a time for self-reflection, of stock-taking, of teshuva, a Hebrew word that is usually translated as ‘repentance’ but literally means ‘return’. To what do we strive to return? If I could, I would return to the days when Jake was still alive, those days where our family was whole and happy. Or at least whole. Of course, that isn’t possible. The ideal is to return to a purer self, to repent for our transgressions, to strive to be better. We are to ask forgiveness from those who we may have hurt or offended during the previous year, and so, if I have hurt or offended anyone who may read this during this past year, slicha, forgive me.
It has been months since I have written anything here. At some level, it feels as if this blog is winding down. But the story hasn’t an end yet. Whether it will end with a bang or a whimper remains to be seen. Grief has stabilized somewhat, the ambushes happen far less frequently, and I can usually see them coming. It feels as if my journey through the labyrinth has stalled, I am becalmed on this Ocean of Heartbreak. I have no new insights to share with my fellow grievers. The scab over the wound has thickened, the scar tissue deepened, but the pain persists although well masked, usually. I struggle with my memory to recall what it was actually like having Jake in the world. What he felt like when I lay my hand on his head to bless him, the sound of his voice, the sparkle in his eye as he made some sarcastic comment or clever turn of words. What conversations with him were like. My conversations are all one-sided these days.
I look at the photographs of him and see the boy, the teenager, the young man, but that person no longer exists. Even if he were alive, the person in the photos would no longer exist. He would have turned 27 this August, and I strain to see what he would be like, who he would become, what his life might be like today. Yes, it is a futile exercise, and one that can only lead to sorrow, but nonetheless, I imagine what he might be doing tonight, where he might be living. I can imagine many scenarios beyond the one I could have never imagined, the one that came true.
Life goes on. We move through the days, weeks, months, and suddenly it has been nearly three years. Three years. I think back to what we were doing three years ago, and it is inconceivable we could have known what our lives would be like three years hence. We had a very different plan. So where does that leave me? Still looking for my lost purpose, a new direction to go. I saw a movie the other day, and there is a line where one of the characters is talking to another about having children. He says, “Yes, that is why we are here”. That was exactly the way I felt when Jake was born, that my true mission on Earth was finally fulfilled. Now I look for something as noble but nothing can really replace that lost purpose. So I strive to do whatever good I can, to perhaps inspire one of the young people I teach, maybe to brighten a stranger’s day with a compliment, or a helpful gesture. But in a way, it is just marking time. What lies ahead I cannot see clearly. The road ahead is still swathed in fog. I have nought to do but to keep walking and hope the fog lifts, or at least thins out a bit. I look back at some of what I wrote 2 years ago, and see I have come some distance from those terrible days, and yet, not so far.
I have been told I should publish this blog as a book. Those suggestions began when I first began writing about my journey. I have thought much about that, and kind of wanted to have a meaningful stopping point. Maybe the three year anniversary, coming soon, will be it. It will need much judicious editing to transform this series of random posts into a coherent narrative. Perhaps the immediacy of the writing could be the whole point of such an endeavor. I don’t know. I just wish I had something more to offer than my own emotions and observations. Something that could help others find their way through this worst of all possible tragedies. A guide book for the Lonesome Highway. But as we have observed, this is such a personal journey that we must find our own way. Everyone will have a different experience, mine might or might not be relevant.
In any case, there it is, another installment. Stream of consciousness indeed. Sometimes it feels like stream of unconsciousness. Maybe it won’t be three months before I can write another. I’ll let you know when I find out.
I came across this article today, and it is a succinct and honest look at what you can say to someone who has lost a son or daughter.
There is also one thing you may never say, “I know how you feel”.
This is the No. 1 phrase to avoid when consoling a grieving mom or dad.
“It’s not permitted to say that to a bereaved parent unless you are a bereaved parent,” Livingston said. “It betrays such a lack of understanding of what the bereaved parent is going through.”
People are sometimes tempted to list their own periods of grief — the death of their grandmother or a beloved family pet — as a way to sympathize, but those are not equivalent losses, he noted.
“To try to explain to people that this is the kind of loss that transforms you into a different person, that you will never be the same person you were before this happened, is almost impossible.”
This is the main thing. This type if grief is a transformative event. You will never be the same person. Your life will never be the same. Unless you have experienced it yourself, you cannot comprehend the magnitude of the loss, nor the irrevocable change one experiences.
We recently went north to attend a wedding in Sebastopol, near Santa Rosa in Northern California. On our way back home, we drove out to the Sonoma coast along the Russian River valley, a lovely 20 miles through rolling forested mountains. We arrived on the coast just south of Jenner around 3 PM. I wanted to photograph some of the breath-taking scenery, and T, who was driving, turned onto a small side road that led toward the ocean. After a couple of hundred yards, the road ended in a wide gravel area where we parked. A trail meandered a short distance out to the bluffs, about 100 feet above the whitecapped-sea.
We walked through the rippling waves of dried grass, the wind howling off the ocean. I made some photos, bracing myself against the 30 mph winds. T started walking back to the car as I continued photographing the flowers and golden fields that linked the rolling coastal hills to the sea. I noticed her up ahead, walking back and forth through a field, looking down, stooping occasionally, as if she were picking flowers, but no flowers grew in the dry scruffy grass.
I walked over to see what she was doing and discovered a most extraordinary thing, the Memory Labyrinth.
She had been directed there by a couple she had seen wandering in the field, and the man had insisted, insisted, she go and look at it. He was right. Out there, nearly invisible unless you were right upon it, was a circle about 75 feet across with a sinuous path worn into the grass. From the entrance, the path led you in circles toward the center, back out to the edge, and finally into the very center. In the grass growing between the curves of the path, people had left a staggering collection of artifacts. Intensely personal things. Photographs, painted stones, jewelry, mirrors, shells, feathers, pebbles, sticks, beads, figurines, bottles, every kind of thing imaginable, all nestled down among the weeds. Many of them were clearly memorials, many were messages of hope, strength, peace, and love.
Here, the wind seemed a bit diminished but still powerful. What we noticed was that even though the grasses were rippling in the wind, it moved none of the objects. There was a carved and painted wooden coyote figure perched precariously on a rock, undisturbed. (The coyote is Jake’s spirit animal. When T was in the hospital giving birth, we had a little stone coyote figure that stood watch on her night table. I wore a silver coyote pin during her pregnancy and for years afterward.) Feathers did not move even though the stalks of grass right next to them did. It was if we had entered an energy vortex of some kind. A portal to another place. Time seemed to stop. We walked the path examining each tableau as if it held some special meaning, and each did. Perhaps not for us, but certainly for the person who created it. Many were cryptic, many spoke directly to us. One painted rock, with a six-pointed flower, said “Three Years Mom”. It has been nearly three years since Jake died.
One said, “The bodies (sic) ability to heal is greater than you know”. One said, “Call Your Mother”. It was overwhelming. We made our way to the center, where an altar of sorts had formed with the accumulation of offerings. And it was clear this thing had been there for years. Someone had created it, and hundreds of people had found their way there and left fragments of their spirit.
I stood there, wind whipping my clothes, desperately trying to think of something I could leave. I felt impelled, compelled, commanded to do so, but I didn’t have anything. Jake’s presence hovered over us as I frantically patted my pockets looking for something I could contribute. There weren’t any stones on the ground we could use. Nothing. T joined me at the center and said simply, “Leave your bracelet”. Several months ago, another grieving dad sent me a black neoprene bracelet embossed with “Grieving Dad – Love is Forever”. He got it from the Grieving Dads website, one of the blogs I follow. I peeled it off and laid it on a rock at the center of the altar. (between the spoon and the bottle filled with sand in the picture above). So now a little piece of me, a piece of Jake, rests among the bits of other people’s lives along the wind-swept Sonoma coast. Who knows if some future visitor may see the black band, stoop to read it, and find an unlooked-for connection.
T went back to the car to get another lens I needed and brought some stones and a stick to make a little cairn at the entrance.
We stood there, tears streaming down our faces, drying in the cold ocean wind. I glanced at my watch. More than an hour had slipped away while we were within the worn path of the labyrinth. It was as if we had been in another dimension, had traveled to another world. We returned to the car and headed south to visit friends who lost their son in a tragic accident, some years ago. As we drove down the coast, through Bodega Bay, and along Tomales Bay, Van Morrison came on the radio singing, Warm Love. The words “…and it’s ever present, everywhere/and it’s ever present everywhere/that warm love” repeated over and over as we wound our way along the inlet that separates Point Reyes from the mainland. Ever Present. Everywhere. That’s Jake.
It is impossible to describe the experience with words and pictures. They are a pale approximation of the power of what lay out in this unmarked field along the coast. If you didn’t know it was there, you would never find it unless some other traveler directed you. Once found, you will never forget it, nor how to get back.