Thursday, May 7, 2009

On the death of a child

[I feel like I’ve had too many death posts of late; I apologize, but it's the order of the day.]

I don’t use profanity; the gemara is very clear about how repellent it is when a person cannot control his tongue, and uses his gift of speech for base purpose. Presumably, the same applies to the keyboard. So I won’t say what’s on my mind.

And there’s nothing meaingful to say, anyway. What would you say?

What do you to someone who carries a baby to term, only to discover upon birth that it is not viable? What do you say when you stand there in the NICU and look at a baby, born yesterday, that will not see tomorrow’s sunrise? What do you say afterward, as the body lies, still, on a table designed for serving up life and joy and celebration?

Forget what you say to the family, to the mother. There is nothing to say; you’re just there.

But what do you say to yourself in order to shut out the image, so that when you look at your own happy children you don’t see those closed eyes, the miniature fist that should be clenched, not lax?

What do you say to calm your mind, so that when you look in the mirror you are not awash with guilt for having been spared this calamity?

What do you say to relax your nerves so that every pregnant woman doesn’t suddenly seem to be a disaster in the making, so that when you finally drift off tonight – eyes closed like the baby, don’t you know - you won’t see visions of what you saw today?

And what do you say to others, to people you meet who waste their breath and time and happy moments on turf wars and pride and who-did-what-to-whom? Or to people who have done nothing wrong, beyond being concerned with a passing, comparatively trivial matter at time when you are enveloped in this?

I know pediatricians, hospitalists, NICU personnel; they see this more than I do. I want to ask them, but I don’t want to know the answer. I know many, too many people who have endured this personally and managed to live life, sometimes birthing more children, sometimes adopting, sometimes not, but finding a way to survive.

I don’t want to know that you can’t learn to live with it. But I certainly don’t want to know that you can learn to live with it.


  1. Oh, wow. Why did you have to see that?

    No one should have to learn to live with it...but may you find the strength to do so.

  2. I don’t want to know that you can’t learn to live with it. But I certainly don’t want to know that you can learn to live with it.

    Or perhaps we none of us truly believe what we say on Rosh Hashanah, or hope that we will be the "lucky" ones--B'Rosh Hashanah yikosavun--who will live to an old age and who will die before old age...

    I am NOT minimizing the pain of the parents, or even your pain at seeing life crushed before even being given a chance. But I've been in that place and yes, you learn to live with it. Is there really any other alternative?

  3. Chanie-
    Thanks. I had to see it because that's what you do when you can help people.

    Prof K-
    We believe it, but never about ourselves. The teenager's invulnerability persists in the minds of many of us. I've buried more than 150 people over the years, but I'm still like that.

  4. I don't Hashem ever expected us to get used to such tragedies, or understand them. I guess we learn to appreciate every single day and appreciate them as a blessing.

    I read in one blog about a woman in the same position, and somehow she found the inner strength to appreciate the blessing of being a mother for only a short while. I find that amazingly brave and amazingly trusting in Hashem.

  5. Live WITH it? No. Those who do are really shunting it aside; not a good option really, though sometimes the only way to go on.

    I'm sorry for you, and for the baby's family. The circle of 'mourners' is wider than we realize.

    Don't forget that this family will need comfort and friendship for quite some time to come. Maybe you, too.

    Hashem should bless you for sharing their pain. Surely you will be blessed to share their joy.

  6. I think premie deaths have the additional element of a mother whose body wasn't able to sustain the baby long enough. That should be dealt with.

    Last night I called my paernts, and my mother told me that one of her oldest and dearest friends (at their age, few are still alive) had just called to say that her first born had just died, and she couldn't even go to his funeral. A mother stays a mother.

  7. Thank you, Mordechai. And 100% agreed on follow-up; all grief must have follow-up.

    Muse- Too true. It works for simchah, but it also works for the opposite.

  8. It is horrible. This doesn't really answer the question, but I just saw a very powerful post how R' Gustman comforted Prof. Robert Aumann (who has since won a Nobel in Economics) after his son was killed in Lebanon in 1982:

  9. The Talmid-
    Thank you very much for posting that. I had the opportunity to daven in Netzach Yisroel (R' Gustman's yeshiva) a couple of times, and I once asked him a shailah. One day I'll tell that story, when I am ready.

  10. The following (at bottom) was sent to me by the person in the story, in honor of her Rabbi & Rebbetzin. There is nothing to say at the time the miscarriage happens, but later we can learn many lessons from it, including proper medical care, how friends and community came together, etc. Rabbi T, recall what R' Ahron Soloveichik said in regard to the holocaust: the yalkut shimoni explains that as part of this world one cannot fully fathom events which are intellectually perplexing and emotionally troubling; only after this world and its history have been completed can God's will in this world be fully comprehended (Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind p. 98).

    I had a miscarriage some years ago erev, erev Pesach. My husband called Rabbi B as I was in the emergency room waiting for the Dr. to come and help me and asked him to make a mishaberach for me. The next thing I know, there is the Rabbi with us in the emergency room. We told him to go home as it was nearly Pesach but he insisted on sitting with my husband into the wee hours of the morning saying tehillim for me until the drs. finished the procedure.

    The next night, Erev Pesach, just before the seder Rebbetzin B appears at our door with a number of cooked cornished hens. We told her thank you we didn't need them we had our whole meal prepared...she insisted. As we were sitting down for the seder, my mother is about to put the turkey in the oven to heat it a little and when she took off the foil we found the bird raw!! After coming back from the hospital no one remembered to turn on the oven. We were saved!!!! A took out those cornished hens and a wonderful seder meal was had by all!!!!!

  11. I just saw this post now. You're right, there's nothing to say.

    But you do learn to live with it and after a while (almost 12 years now) it doesn't even hurt so much any more.

    The most important part is feeling a sense of purpose to what happened -- I assume you are familiar with the beautiful letter on the subject which appeared in "The Jewish Observer" and in "Vistas of Challenge". -- that helped too.

    I hope you are doing well, and your congregants too.

  12. Sigal-
    Thanks for reading as well as commenting. I don't think I'm familiar with that letter, no. When did it appear? Perhaps I can find it on-line.

  13. I'm not sure if it can be found online. I can scan it in and email it to you. If you want it, just let me know.

    It appears in the book "vistas of challenge"(

  14. Hi Sigal,

    Thank you very much, but I feel like I should purchase the book if the article isn't on-line; I tend to be machmir on this issue.

    What's the title of the article itself? I may find it on-line that way.

    Regards home, and thanks again for commenting.

  15. The letter was written by Rabbi Moshe Wolfson (of Torah V' Daas) translated to English by Rabbi Shimon Finkleman. I saw it first it "The Jewish Observer", and believe it was published in a few other settings. In "Vistas of Challenge" edited by Seryl Sander, it is titled "a mission fulfilled".

    I hope this helps.

  16. Thanks, Sigal. I'll look for it, and probably end up purchasing the book. I appreciate the reference.