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Praying After the Death of My Son

May 8, 2017 | by Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider

An open letter to Sheryl Sandberg.

Dear Sheryl,

Your new book Option B has opened the conversation for thousands about the way to respond to tragedy and heartache after the loss of a loved one. In a matter of a few weeks you have created a space on Facebook for thousands who have endured the pain of loss and have provided countless individuals with support and a place to feel embraced. You have taken a topic that is often considered taboo and have brought it to the forefront of public discourse.

On-line and in interviews you have been asked the question, “What gives a person the strength to go on? How can we build resilience to cope with the loss of a husband, a wife, a parent, a brother, a sister, a son or daughter?”

My four-year-old son passed away suddenly. On that Wednesday afternoon my wife had brought my son Elisha to the store and bought him a skateboard that he had been asking for. They came home. Together with my other children they were all playing in the living room. Elisha stopped breathing and passed out.

The doctors are not sure what happened. They tried to revive him but they could not. We buried Elisha in Israel. We flew over and placed his small body wrapped in simple white linen in the holy soil of the land on a rainy and cold night in February. A son who I had played with and carried in my arms a day earlier I had now placed in the ground.

We flew back directly following the burial and arrived for the morning service in our home where we would sit shiva. As I was praying I noticed that on the bottom of my pants legs there were mud stains from the wet dirt around the grave at the burial.

I looked up from staring at my pants and continued to pray. On that excruciating morning, I remember coming upon words in the prayer book that I said thousands of times before. But now these words would have a whole new meaning.

In the Amida prayer, the main prayer Jews recite three times a day, we affirm that God is the God who brings back those who have passed away to life again.

Jews believe that we will physically be reunited with our loved ones again here on this earth.

One of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time, Moses Maimonides, known in Hebrew as the Rambam, counted this belief to be a critical principle of faith. To live a full Jewish life, from Maimonides’ perspective, means to incorporate this article of faith within one’s belief system. There is more to anticipate beyond what we know of this world. We will physically be reunited with our loved ones again here on this earth. This belief is not referring to a heavenly reunification. We believe that there will be a ‘real life’ existence again.

The experience of loss is heartbreaking and frightening. It is traumatic. Judaism offers multiple approaches that attempt to deal with the devastation of death. There is no answer that alleviates the pain when a precious life has been taken from us.

This unique spiritual perspective, namely that we will one day reunite with our loved ones - and the outright rejection that our lives are simply snuffed without any future - may help ground us and provide a modicum of comfort. As we begin to reconstruct our lives, this singular brick of faith may best be utilized as a foundation stone as we begin to forge ahead and endeavor to rebuild and restore our shattered lives.

My nine-year-old son has asked me more than once if he will ever see his brother again. Without hesitation I answer him, yes. I say to him that we believe that those that have left this world will one day be brought back to us. This answer brings him solace and comfort.

When our children learn this genuine Jewish belief, it conveys to them that the crucial message that our lives matter; they matter to such a degree that our lives continue to endure even beyond this world. We as Jewish parents have always instilled in our children optimism and have taught them to never give up and anticipate a brighter day that will surely come.

On those dark and desolate nights when we sit alone in our heartache, we may choose to reach out for this precious gem of faith. May it find the right place in our hearts. May we hear it whispering to us, Don’t despair, remain strong, don’t surrender, always remain hopeful.

Sheryl, you have done a remarkable mitzvah. You have taken your pain and have used your experience to help lessen the pain of others who have endured similar suffering.

All of us who are on this road know that the road to resilience is a painful one. It is an uneven road with many jagged rocks and sharp edges. As we travel on this demanding journey, in our spiritual inner world, we are the beneficiaries of an enduring promise, a promise made to each of us: Our loved ones are not lost forever. Our loved ones will be with us again. The world will be made right.

Aaron Goldscheider
Director, In Our Hearts

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