Navigating the Land of Grief Since My Son’s Death

Nearly 11 years ago my wife and I entered the world of grief when we lost our teenage son.

This week, we will again confront the never-ending anguish and heartache of this unfathomable death by dutifully participating in religious rites of mourning. And we will spend yet another year grappling with the sorrow just by ourselves.

When the anniversary of the death of our son arrives this week–the 2nd of Elul on the Jewish calendar, which is tonight–we’ll be headed to our synagogue to recite the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer.

We’ll be lighting a candle at home that will burn all day in his memory, and we’ll be visiting his gravesite.

A few days later comes the secular anniversary of his death, which falls on August 14. Shabbat happens to be that day and we’ll probably end up at services.

Four times a year, a moving memorial prayer service called Yizkor is held in the synagogue, and that’s when we recite prayers for the dead, such as the El Male Rachamim, as well as the Kaddish itself. We try to attend these services.

This flurry of activity might give the impression that we’re devout, but we’re not. While we try to be well read on Judaism and all things Jewish, we’ve never been regular synagogue-goers.

But the reaction to the horror helped us gain a profound respect for organized religious life.

After the death knocked us numb and we couldn’t reason or plan anything, a synagogue committee devoted to helping those who grieve leaped into action, and their labors impressed us greatly.

People who didn’t know us personally were there to help us navigate through the shock of death: They prepared our house for the shiva, the Jewish mourning period, and prepared food for us and the scores of the bereaved who showed up at our door.

This gesture affirmed our appreciation and deepened our understanding of the Jewish faithful.

But eventually the mourning period ended and eventually the crowds of friends and relatives who filled our living room disappeared, and it didn’t take us long to figure out that the funeral and the shiva inoculate you from the real world of the bereaved.

After we trudged back to our jobs and began slugging it out in the working world, we began to sense the enormity of our loss, and that’s when the readjustment process began setting in.

The most profound lesson I took from this ordeal is that no one understands the death of a child unless he or she is their own son, daughter or sibling.

Many people have asked us over the years if we’ve gotten “closure.” The answer, of course, is no, never, unless you are a sociopath.

We’ve run into people who have had the nerve to tell us that our boy’s death was part of God’s plan.

We’ve encountered impatience from some because we continue to grieve, as if we’re on the clock and there’s a countdown toward normalcy.

But I soon learned not to knock these simple-minded people. I know their lives and thoughts will change when they get a call or a knock on the door with the ultimate bad news.

We’ve been frank with such insensitive people and have been unapologetic for reacting normally to an abnormal situation. It’s a new world with no rules and you do things you never thought about doing before and see things you never once noticed.

When you go through this kind of ordeal, you cry without warning. When I turn a corner at certain streets, recall something nice or read about another death, tears flow.

I sweat in rage when I encounter a loutish teenager or a negligent parent, and I get very sad when I meet a respectful and wonderful young man or woman reminiscent of our son.

Over the years, it’s been hard to stomach people who complain about trivial issues. I wish serial complainers would just shut up and smell the roses – the flowers in question being their children who are alive and well.

I was in such grief at one time that I read material about and explored ideas of an afterlife for the purpose of “contacting” my son. To me, such a quest is a waste of time but I had to carry it through and get it out of my system.

Over the years, though, I’ve worked very hard to not wallow in pain, and learned very quickly not to allow myself to be in uncomfortable situations.

For example, if I were watching a film with disturbing imagery, I’d walk out of the theater or click off the pay-per-view. If I were invited to a gathering and something upset me, I would leave.

Nothing will compel us to let the pain get worse. My wife and I haven’t been shy about getting grief counseling, a process that helped us go forward.

We’ve learned that honoring our son’s memory with our daily actions and never forgetting him are the most important parts of the coping process.

I’ll never forget the day I came early to pick my boy up at football practice, and to my surprise, he was waiting for me.

He told me he and a Muslim kid on the team chose to walk out because a representative from a Christian athletes group was invited to preach to team members. (This was at a public school, by the way.)

So many kids would have caved under such pressure and stuck around.

But our son–who reveled in the diversity that typifies the cities we lived in and had good friends from every religion, ethnic group and social class–knew who he was and was proud of his identity, so he left the gathering.

The only advice I can give a parent who loses a child is to soldier on. You have no choice. As years go by, pleasant thoughts of the departed will replace the nightmares and the pain. The torment will always be there but it will recede.

Here’s a quote from The New York Times obit of Bob Lemon, the Cleveland Indians pitcher and Yankees manager, about the death of his son in an accident. I’ve never stopped thinking about this remark after I first read it.

“I’ve never looked back and regretted anything. I’ve had everything in baseball a man could ask for. I’ve been so fortunate. Outside of my boy getting killed. That really puts it in perspective. So you don’t win the pennant. You don’t win the World Series. Who gives a damn? Twenty years from now, who’ll give a damn?”

“You do the best you can. That’s it.”

– Joe Sterling

Joe Sterling is a News Editor for The CNN Wire.