Finding the Time, Place and Space to Mourn

The death of a child is unspeakable. The grief of the parent is beyond what can be expressed, so complex and encompassing is it.

LEVITICUS 9:1-11:47
In the opening to parasha Shemini we read that Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are consumed by the fire they illicitly offer. “Thus they died.” Instantly dead.
In the wake of this horrific death Moses says to Aharon: “This is what Adonai meant when He said, ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’ ”
Moses was a great prophet, but, the narrative in the Torah shows us that he had to learn how to speak. Here, Moses’s words show his discomfort with words.  For, in effect, Moses’ response to Aaron is: “It is God’s will” — a practically foolproof way of turning a mourner into an atheist!
Aharon’s response? “And Aharon was silent.”
The death of a child is unspeakable. The grief of the parent is beyond what can be expressed, so complex and encompassing is it.
There are no words that can adequately bring peace to the broken heart of the mourning parent. And yet when we are with parents who are lamenting the loss of their child, we yearn to offer words of comfort.
As a chaplain and bereavement counselor, I struggle with finding the ways that will bring comfort to those I serve. Even after all the years of “comforting the mourner,” I wrestle with each new encounter.
Judaism has created a strong template for mourning, from the moment of death to yahrzeit memorials, that provide anchors for mourners in the churning seas of loss and grief. There is a wealth of written wisdom, from the Mishnah to the latest offerings of contemporary rabbis and grief counselors.
I draw from many of these in my work, as well as from many non-Jewish sources.
And yet. And yet I know in my kishkes (guts) that while these sources help profoundly, there is a howling, empty place that resides in the mourning parent that remains untouched by these.
There is that place of Aharon’s silence.
Looking into the face of loss, into the eyes of the mourner, I find I so want to fill the silent pain I see, find words to comfort — even though I know that in the first moments, days, weeks, months and, sometimes, years of an enormous loss, there are no words to adequately comfort.
In my experience, in the face of loss, it is ultimately not our words that comfort. It is our presence, our silent assurance that we are with them, that in their loneliness, they are not alone.
It is in our making a safe space for them to express their grief, their memories, their love. It is in supporting them to find their own words and their own way to holiness and wholeness.
My brother Richard died at 4 years old. I never got to know him; I was 3 months old when he died. My parents — my mother told me many years later — were not “allowed” to mourn! Not only were they busy with a newborn (me) and a 7-year-old (my older brother), they were told by their families that they must not show their feelings, that they should just focus on their living children — and be grateful. Well, I know my parents were grateful for their living children — they told us that often and showered us with love. But that deep well of grief was a presence throughout the rest of their lives, breaking the banks of their hearts and rushing forth.
I wish they could have had the time and space to mourn, a safe space to be with their pain and their loss and their love. But they didn’t — and they suffered. We all suffered.
In an earlier article, I wrote about how not being able to say goodbye to each of my parents before they died has inspired my work with families who are facing end-of-life issues. They also inspire my work with mourners.
So, although I research and search and for the right words to bring comfort and meaning for the mourners I counsel, I know that it is in my silent presence, in giving them the space and time to be with their grief, their dashed hopes and dreams, their memories, their loss and their love, that healing will come.
Rabbi Tsurah August is a hospice chaplain for Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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