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How I’m Coping with the Loss of My Adult Son

August 6, 2020 | by Rhonda Roth

My son’s sudden death left me grief stricken and confused.

My emotional and intellectual struggle began four months ago when my dear son of twenty-four years unexpectedly passed away from a heart condition no one knew he had. A kind, sweet young man, Jacob was a good son, brother, uncle, and friend to those who knew him.

His sudden passing left me grief stricken and confused. Something was dreadfully wrong. This is not how it’s supposed to be. I took it for granted that he would eventually get married, have children, have a good career. He had plans to go to law school. He was supposed to have a wonderful life. All my plans came to an end when he was untimely ripped away from me. I cried for weeks. I couldn't look at his picture without bursting into tears. People would say to me, "He’s in a better place." Perhaps that would be comforting if he had been suffering. It didn't comfort me. Jacob was young and healthy. He wasn't suffering. How could he be in a better place?

I’d ask God over and over, Why? God, what are you doing? I was confused. How could this be? I was angry at my husband. Like many men, he doesn't show his emotions. I felt I was mourning alone. Every night, I’d go into a room, shut the door, and cry incessantly.

How am I going to cope with this tremendous loss in my life? I felt like I'd never experience any joy again. I felt like I'd be mourning him forever.

Losing an Adult Child is a Unique Kind of Loss

When a child is lost to us, a part of us is lost as well. Even after our child becomes an adult, our child remains our child. We just don’t ‘get over' the loss a child. The grief never goes away.

Losing my son as an adult was particularly devastating for me. I was intimately involved in his long arduous journey from infancy to adulthood. I have so many memories of him as a baby, a toddler, a teenager, and as a grown man. I feel I nurtured a seed, saw it grow into a sapling, and then into a strong tree. Then it got cut down. How do we cope with the tremendous loss of a child? How do we struggle with the hollow feeling that all our toil as a parent was for naught?

Intellectually Struggling with Grief

For me, a key to coping with these feelings is to view the terrible event from an intellectual perspective.

Because we’re human, we will always remember our child and still cry over the fact that he or she is no longer with us. However, much of our anguish stems from the unknown. I would wonder, what’s happened to my Jacob, where is he, what is he doing?

Thankfully, I had wonderful support from friends and Rabbis who gave me words of comfort, encouragement, and insight into the definition of life and the redefinition of death. Now, a few months later, my intense grief has been replaced by a more subdued sadness. It’s not the passage of time that has lessened the anguish but rather learning that death is not end of life. Death is the end of physical life, but not the end to life itself.

I've learned about what a soul is, its journey, and life in two worlds.

Our family. Jacob is on the left

What is the soul? God created the soul from Himself. Because the soul is a part of God, it lives on forever. The soul is composed of five parts and comprises the whole intellectual and emotional makeup of the person. According to Jewish literature, the lowest soul level, called Nefesh, is the part of the soul that animates the body. The next level, Ruach, is that which determines the person’s emotions and character. The third level is Neshama, corresponding to thought or intellect. The fourth level, Chayah, is the seat of the will. The highest level, Yechidah, is the ultimate source of the soul within Godliness.

The soul thus comprises a person’s whole essence. It’s who they are. When Jacob was physically here, we would have many pleasant conversations. But I wasn't really talking to his body, I was speaking to his soul because that’s who he truly is.

The Journey of the Soul and Life in Two Worlds

The soul lives in two worlds, one physical, the other spiritual. Once God creates a soul, it resides in the spiritual world. A soul has its own identity, aware of its spiritual surroundings. When the time comes, God sends it down to this physical world to perform its unique mission, giving it a precise number of years to get the job done. By performing this mission together with acts of goodness and kindness, the soul obtains a closeness to God that it couldn't acquire if it stayed in the spiritual realm.

If the soul doesn't succeed in its mission, it comes back again later to eventually get it right. At a pre-determined time, the soul then leaves the body and ascends back to the spiritual world from where it started. This shuttling back and forth between the physical and spiritual realms can go on for many lifetimes.

Sometimes, the number of a person’s years are based on fixing the past. Perhaps, in the person’s past life there were unfulfilled mitzvot. Perhaps, there may have been things that the person should not have done. The soul needs to come back into this world for a short time to make up for those lost opportunities or to rectify the bad, then it can return to the spiritual realm.

A person doesn't remember its previous life because each time the soul comes down, it resides in a new body and has a new brain that acts as a filter between the spiritual world and the physical one. How long a person lives is determined by a precise accounting based on what that person needs to accomplish in this world.

A Jewish Perspective of Death

Since the soul has a journey and a mission to fulfill, the idea of death seems to be a little less terrible. Why then do we still feel such tremendous sadness? The answer is that we don’t see the big picture of God’s plan, so we don’t see the inherent good in what appears to be a tragic event. For example, when a child gets a needed shot, all the child feels is pain. Trying to explain that the shot will protect him from illness is futile. The child is too young to understand. All we can do is comfort him until the pain goes away. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, had this idea in mind when on Rosh Hashanah he would wish people a good, sweet year. His intent was that God’s goodness should be palpably sweet so we truly see the good.

This difference between human and Divine perspectives appears in the Torah and in the words of our Sages. The Torah commentator Rashi, on Parsha Toldot, explains why Isaac’s vision was impaired near the end of his life:

“…when he was bound on the altar and his father wanted to slaughter him, at that time the heavens opened up and the ministering angels saw, and they were crying. Their tears descended and fell on his eyes…”.

Why did the heavens have to open up, as if the angels had to look out the heavenly window to see what was going on? Surely they knew what was happening. I have heard it explained that the angels did know what was going on, and from their spiritual perspective it was good. It was when they looked out the window and viewed from the perspective of our physical world that they cried.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) ,in Iggeret HaKodesh, Epistle 11 of the Tanya, explains that the world is recreated every moment. G-d continually creates this world with His supernal wisdom, and since His wisdom is the source of all life, there’s only goodness. An excerpt from this Epistle reads:

“… no evil descends from above and everything is good, though it is not apprehended because of its immense and abundant goodness.”

Rabbi Shneur Zalman takes this concept of goodness one step further. He is saying that the event which appears as bad is not just an unfortunate event leading to something good. The actual event that appears to be bad is good, in and of itself.

As finite created beings, we will never fully understand why God does what He does or the rationale behind it.

When goodness is hidden, it means that the spiritual source of this goodness is from a very lofty place. It appears bad to us because we don’t understand God’s infinite wisdom. As finite created beings, we will never fully understand why God does what He does or the rationale behind it. We need to believe wholeheartedly that when a soul leaves this physical world, it’s truly a good thing.

Soul's Transition

I keep asking myself, What is Jacob doing now? Since we refer to the spiritual realm as a world, he must be doing something there. Jewish death and mourning customs give us an insight as to what happens to the soul after death:

Members of the burial society, the Chevra Kadisha, have a strict practice not to engage in idle conversation when they prepare a person for burial. This is because the soul "hears" and is aware of what’s done to its body. Our Sages say that the soul, because of its attachment to its body, hovers around the grave for a prolonged period of time.

After burial it’s customary that we don’t visit the grave for one year. (There may be exceptions during certain times, but this is the general practice.) Why? When a soul separates from the body, it’s an extreme change of being. It’s like an astronaut who has been in outer space for a lengthy period and now comes back to earth. Just as there is a physical readjustment for the astronaut, there's a spiritual readjustment for the soul. The soul is now getting used to life without a body. This process takes twelve months. A visit to the grave during the first year would interfere with this procedure making it harder for the soul to readapt to the spiritual world.

Life in the Spiritual World

When the patriarch Abraham passes away, the Torah says:

“… he was gathered into his people.”

This phrase is used several times to describe the passing of various individuals. Thus, when we return to the spiritual world, we are greeted by and reunited with our family who have passed on. In the Yizkor prayer we remember our relatives who have passed away and we say:

“…may his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life with the souls of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and with the other men and women who are in Gan Eden…”

Quoting passages from the Zohar and Proverbs, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi says:

“…And this is the essence of the faith for which man was created: to believe that there is no place void of Him, and in the light of the Kings countenance there is life’ …”

Hence, there is life in the spiritual world. A life very much different from our physical world, but life nonetheless. Our Sages say that since God’s presence is so much more revealed there, the soul is extremely happy just being close to Him. Our Sages also say that the soul will pray to God for the benefit of those still here in the physical realm. Since the soul is truly happy, it is saddened by knowing others are grieving for it. That is why Jewish law prescribes a finite mourning period and we are cautioned not to grieve excessively past that time.

Redefining Death as a Continuation of Life

Much of our grief stems from the idea that our child’s life is over. If we view this physical world as the only one, then yes, it is understandable that our grief should last forever. However, we have not one world, but two, and there’s life in both.

I think about my son day and night. A part of me is buried with him.

What we call death is simply the soul separating from the body and returning to the spiritual world from whence it came. It’s not an end, but a continuation of the life it led before coming into this world. The person will live its life there until it needs to return here for God’s purpose. Before Jacob passed away, he served God in this physical world. Now he’s serving God in a different way.

If we can internalize this concept, we are better able to cope with our feelings of sadness and loss over losing our child.

Struggling with Grief

Internalizing a concept we understand intellectually is very difficult. We’re human. To stop mourning for a child who was taken away from us is impossible. The best we can do is think about these ideas again and again to ultimately incorporate them emotionally. This may be a lifetime process but remains our goal.

I thank God that I was blessed with raising Jacob and seeing him grow into a fine young man. He is getting used to the spiritual world once again. God’s presence is so much more revealed to him and this makes him extremely happy.

Have I internalized all these lofty concepts? Not yet. I’m still working on it. I think about him day and night. A part of me is buried with him. Every day I struggle with him not being here. But what can I do? Crying bitterly won’t bring him back. At times I cry. I want him to be happy. I try not to cry too much. In the words of King David mourning the death of his infant son: “Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him but he will not return to me.” (Samuel II, 12:23)

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