Unfathomable is the word that springs to mind when describing the loss of a child. After his 2-month-old daughter passed away, Seth Clyman’s world was shattered, his life turned upside-down. Even before the shivah that would bring his family and friends to comfort him, we learn a lot about the narrator of this story inTouching the World of Angels.
We listen in on the phone call as a neighbor summons him at work: “Your baby isn’t well; you should come home as soon as you can.” The ambulance that crosses paths with the cab bringing him to his neighborhood in Jerusalem echoes an eerie silence: impending doom.
We know in the same instant he does that his baby and his wife are in that ambulance, and minutes later, he will follow.
We travel with him into the E.R., watch as medical personnel surround the tiny baby; reviving her is the focus of their care. When “enough” is expressed, we understand that the baby has passed, and a family’s life will never be the same.
That universal feeling — that we are unable to prevent this from happening — partially explains why, even if we have not experienced the loss of a child ourselves, this mind-numbing reality we just read has been familiar at one time or another to all of us.
Before the confusion and pain that clogs this father’s mind will gain full force, he has to decide about his baby’s burial and obtain the necessary permit. Long before he can think to wonder why this has happened, there are practical matters he must attend to; while his pain is so great, his burden so large, Clyman’s journey represents just beginning.
“The Angel of Death had come much too close for comfort,” this observant man would later write.
Touching the World of Angels is actually many different stories. Clyman’s narrative is woven together with a series of short dreams, experiences and anecdotes the author has embedded within the larger context in which all life and loss occur.
By the end of his period of shivah, the father will emerge at the other side, where the light and goodness that can come from sorrow illuminate his life. But first he must discover, “How was the loss of my child going to affect me, my wife and my family?”
The Clymans went on to have three other children after the loss of their infant, bring their offspring to a total of eight.
Contacted at his home in Israel, Clyman — who lived in New York before moving to Israel when he was 14 — explained that following the passing of his daughter from crib death, he often spoke with other parents who had experienced a similar loss.
“I carried a simple but important message, that I’m here and life is precious,” he said.
“Even when we’re down in the dumps, there are a billion people who would change places with us.”
The inability to see beyond one’s own pain is something Clyman seems to comprehend, having been there and done that.
“When someone suffers a loss, they have so much anger; sometimes people want revenge, is how they feel,” he said. “So many times I’ve heard people say about someone, ‘He went through a tragedy and hasn’t been the same for the last 30 years.’ “
It is not easy to get to a place where you can take negative energy and channel it positively, “to feel the loss was not a waste, that it can be used for reaching the potential for good: for growth, for helping others, for appreciating what you can do with what you have.”
The ability to see life’s true miracles does not happen quickly, if it occurs at all. According to Clyman, it is only in looking back that the opportunity to learn and grow can be realized.
“First, you feel like you’re going through a black hole,” he said. “Pain and anger are natural parts of it. After time, you mature with the ideas and see opportunities and decide how to cope with what’s happened.”
With the realization that he was “losing a world, and she is being driven away in a blue van,” a strong sense of the hazy confusion this father experienced is painted for the reader.
During shivah, Clyman sat low to the ground, receiving the friends and family who visited, and it is from the depths of that perspective that he extracted the book.
With the realization that all of life is precious, the work of a devoted Creator, Clyman described in the book how he was infused with energy, purpose and the ability to get up from shivah when it came time.
Five years elapsed between the time Clyman lost his daughter and he finished the book. “Everyone of us goes through some kind of loss,” he said. “How to continue your life when you realize you’re not going to get that something back,” and “the concept of growing from loss” are “amazing.”
As Clyman would develop the powerful ideas and stories, the concept went through a maturation process.
The days of the shivah became a metaphor, representing a new piece of the puzzle Clyman wrestled with each day, trying to understand why his baby had died and what he could learn from it.
He pondered these issues, questioned his visitors, drew upon his great faith in Judaism and explored his dreams, sifting through the layers of these profound topics for deeper insight, bringing the reader with him.