In our society, there is so much talk about women's feelings and emotions that one tends to forget that fathers really do love their children, that they also have feelings, and that they also need to grieve. Years ago, when I lost a newborn after a very difficult pregnancy, emergency C-section and subsequent kidney infection, all my friends and neighbors were hovering over me. Yes, I was exhausted both physically and emotionally, and my hormones were going haywire, but no one seemed to realize that my husband was also struggling with a loss.
Our Tapestry contacted three fathers, Simcha Millman, Shabse Werther and Seth Clyman to hear how they dealt with their child's death.
Our Tapestry: Please tell our readers a bit about your child and how he was niftar.
Simcha Millman: My daughter, Perel Rina, a”h, suffered from Systemic Juvenile Rheumotoid Arthritis for about five years, and suddenly passed away six years ago, when she was just eighteen. She was a very special girl, and despite the limitations of her illness, she had a tremendous drive to reach any goal that she set for herself.
Shabse Werther: Our son, Sholom B'nayahu, a"h, was killed in a hit and run accident on the fourth night of Sukkos, 5770/2009 while walking with his younger brother, Aharon, to his older brother's house. His death occurred at a time when our relationship was growing into one of honest communication and closeness. Twice during the last week of Sholom's life I had the occasion to call his Rosh Yeshiva and express my astonishment regarding Sholom's growth in Torah and love of Yiddishkeit (Judaism). Sholom had gone through many years of turmoil and had finally matured into a magnificent young man. Then, all of the sudden, he was gone.
Seth Clyman: We lost a two month old baby girl in a crib death. It happened over ten years ago, while she was at the babysitter. She was our fifth child, and after she was niftar, we had four more children. Because she was so little when she passed away, and we had such a busy household with four young children, I don't have many memories of her.
I realize that this might sound harsh, but I cherish my memories of the loss. I remember certain details as though it happened yesterday, but they are all pieces of a bigger picture that is foggy. I remember being with her outside the hospital before we got into the Chevra Kadisha van. It was just the two of us and it was very quiet. That was the last time we were alone together.
Our Tapestry: We know that men and women handle grief differently. Could you share with us how you handled your grief?
Seth Clyman: All our other children were young, so just my wife and I sat and grieved. Taking care of our busy household left very little time to dwell on the loss. In some ways it was a big plus as it had a longer time to sink in. I actually made a tape of my thoughts after the shiva. I listened to it a few months later and then once again every few years. I realized that as my thoughts evolved, I matured with them.
Shabse Werther: Despite the initial shock, I did not fall into despair, which in itself was a surprise. I had always felt that if one of our children would be taken from us, I would collapse and die. Instead, I found reserves of strength I did not realize I possessed. When I called each of our children after the accident, I didn't tell them that Sholom had died. I simply said, "HaShem wanted Sholom back." Before the funeral, our family gathered together at home while the Mashgiach (Dean of Students) of the Long Beach Yeshiva spoke to us as a group. I don't remember what he said, but I do remember that it gave us courage. Afterwards, I told my wife and sons, "We are broken but we are not destroyed. We will continue as a family. We must never forget Sholom, ever." Before we began sitting shiva, I repeatedly told my wife how fortunate we were to have had Sholom with us for 17 years. Although I found myself crying each morning upon waking, each day I was able to realize that Sholom's life had reached its ultimate destiny and that indeed it was time for him to go back "home."
Our Tapestry: What did you do to keep your family together during the overwhelming early days? Was there anything in particular that helped?
Shabse Werther: At the seudah marking the shloshim, our family made a siyum on all of the Mishnah and a Sefer Torah was begun in his memory. Generally, I strongly feel that Sholom is connected to me. Standing outside the hall before his funeral, I told my wife, "You’re going to think I'm crazy but I feel that Sholom is standing here with me. I hear him telling me, 'Ta, it's ok, everything's ok.'" In the ensuing months and years, I believe he has dropped me "messages" to let us know that he has reached his destiny and is protecting his beloved family. The messages are profound, direct, and clearly coming from and/or about Sholom. Although at first I found this frightening, now I find it comforting.
Sholom often comes up in conversation, though less now than in the first two years. Generally, our family would be reminiscing about some shared memory when his name would come up naturally, so it rarely evoked sadness. Refraining from focusing on the fact that he is not physically with us, and instead remembering that Shalom was so full of life and vigor and joy – so many of his friends commented on how he radiated happiness – has been a source of comfort.
Seth Clyman: After the shiva, we made time in our busy schedules to speak with people and hear their thoughts about the loss, how to deal with it and how to continue with our lives. It was a turning point in our lives and not a time to keep to ourselves.
Our Tapestry: Is it your minhag to say Kaddish for your child? Yizkor? Can you share some of the emotions you dealt with at the beginning? How do you feel about it now?
Simcha Millman: Both my parents were niftar before our daughter, Perel Rena, so I was able to say Kaddish as a zechus for her Neshama. Since our daughter was niftar on 19 Elul, and we got up from Shiva just a couple of days before Rosh Hashanah, the first Yizkor was a few days later, on Yom Kippur. That was the hardest Yizkor in my life. In the middle of Yizkor I had to go to the back of the Shul to make sure I had a wall to lean on if I would faint. The next Yizkor was only a few weeks later, on Shemini Atzeres. It was also difficult, but nothing like the first one. Since the Yizkor on Yom Kippur was so close to Perel Rena’s petirah, saying Yizkor gave her death a sense of finality, which I hadn’t felt before.
Seth Clyman: Because she died when just a baby, there was no kaddish. Although there was a shiva, there is no yartzeit. Our understanding is that we do not have to do anything for her because she has no need of a tikkun. That was hard to deal with because as parents we wanted to give to our child, and here we couldn't. Instead, we try to give to others.
Shabse Werther: I do say Yizkor for Sholom and I said Kaddish the entire first year. My situation may be a bit different than most fathers - death is no stranger to me. I lost my father when I was 17 and my mother died three weeks after Sholom was born. I also lost a sister and two of our sons had close calls - one with cancer and another almost lost his life in an accident that was identical to the one that took Sholom's life. A bereaved parent whose own parents are still living may be reticent to - and halachically proscribed from - saying Kaddish.
Our Tapestry: Everyone who has suffered a loss will at some point experience “trigger moments” --something that causes your emotions to unexpectedly rise to the surface. Can you share with us one incident that comes to mind? How did you react? Did you ignore it or face it head on?
Seth Clyman: I experienced that the first time I had to tell someone that the baby passed away. Hearing yourself say those words makes it very, very real -- too real. It is much easier to stay quiet and keep it to yourself. Although sharing your loss with others makes you vulnerable, it's important – and what's even more important is to share the loss with yourself. Don't fool yourself. Look in the mirror and ask yourself, "Yes I lost a child. Now is that going to make a difference with the rest of my life or am I just going to continue and let life take its course?"
Our Tapestry: Tell us what you have done l'ilui nishmas your child. (Did it include other members of the family or is it something you prefer to do alone? How did the family respond to your choice?)
Simcha Millman: I am very careful not to speak during the davening. My wife and I distribute money to tzedaka for medical needs. We also printed and sponsored Bencher and Mincha cards that are used in several local schools. All of these are done l'ilui nishmas Perel Rena.
Shabse Werther: On Sholom B'nayahu's first yartzeit, we made a Siyum Hashas and Hachnassos Sefer Torah l'ilui his neshama. Every year, on his yartzeit we gather together as a family in our Sukkah and make a siyum, although not as grand as the first.
Seth Clyman: Our understanding is that because our baby was so young, she completed her tikkun here in this world and needs no ilui neshama.
Our Tapestry: Does visiting your child’s kever bring you comfort, relief or fulfillment?
Shabse Werther: My wife and I go to the Bais Hachaim from time to time. I wish now that we had buried him closer to our home, instead of 45 minutes away, as then I would go more often. We know that Sholom's siblings visit, too. I find some comfort in going, although lately, I find it a good place for prayer. I used to leave the cemetery with tears flowing down my face, instead now I find myself leaving with a smile, telling Sholom to "keep those messages to us coming." And he has!
Seth Clyman: According to Minhag Yerushalayim one does not know where a baby is buried, so we followed that. I tell people that I do not know where my baby daughter is buried, but she knows exactly where I am holding.
Simcha Millman: As a Kohen, I am not allowed to get too close to Perel Rena’s grave, although we made sure that it would be in the front rows of the Bais HaChaim. Although six years have passed, I still find real comfort in going there.
Our Tapestry: Has your family made a simcha since the passing of your child and if so, how did it affect your happiness?
Simcha Millman: Perel Rena’s older sister got married a little over a year after she passed away. At the vort, which was in the same room where we sat Shiva the previous year, I gave thanks to Hashem that the room of aveilus was now a room of simcha. I am quite sure that the tremendous turnout for the vort was a reflection of our friends wanting to help us celebrate a simcha relatively soon after the aveilus.
Seth Clyman: We have celebrated many simchas since the loss. The loss is part of our lives. Our lives have been enriched from it, not set back from it.
Our Tapestry: Are you able to talk about your child easily or does it bring forth painful memories that make it difficult for you to share?
Shabse Werther: My coworkers and students were a great source of encouragement to me. They listened, sometimes with fascination, to the latest "messages" I received from Sholom (there were so many, I eventually wrote a book about them) and one even said how they knew I was putting on a brave front to spare them from seeing me in agony. Truth is, Sholom's death forced me to do something I had never learned to do well - put a smile on my face when my heart was broken. It has been an important step in my character development.
Seth Clyman: We are able to talk about it and we find that sharing is good for both sides; the listener and us. With every time that the loss comes up, the ideas and the messages mature. Life is a growing process and loss is part of everyone's life. We are constantly losing things that we wish we hadn't. One has to continue living.
Simcha Millman: I have no difficulty talking about Perel Rena. But there is one thing that I am not able to do. Her picture is prominently displayed in my study (which also doubles as the living room). Even now, six years after she passed away, I cannot bring myself to look at her picture – I can only quickly glance at it.
Our Tapestry: What is your reaction when others bring up your child? Do you appreciate their thoughts and memories or would you prefer they don’t share them?
Simcha Millman: I appreciate hearing their thoughts and memories since it brings me pleasure to know that Perel Rena’s life impacted others.
Seth Clyman: I have no problem when other bringing up the loss. Sometimes people are not sensitive and may not say the correct things but I do not let that bother me. I try to learn from it. I feel bad for those people who try to avoid the issue and make as if it never happened. It is comforting to know that they are there for us and are also trying to live with their friend's loss. Over the years, our loss has become part of the fabric of our relationships. When someone else suffers a loss, we are asked to speak with the parents.
Our Tapestry: What message would you like to give other bereaved fathers?
Shabse Werther:I would like to pass on the advice that I received right after Sholom died. A therapist who had worked with Sholom when he was fifteen called to express his sorrow, and then he said, "All you can do is put one foot in front of the other. Life will go on." And it has. Each of us finds our own way through the loss, grief, sorrow and pain. We know that HaShem loves us and that whatever we experience is for the best. Our departed loved ones gain little if anything from our grief. But the inspiration we derive from their lives in this world only enhances their eternal existence in the next.
Seth Clyman: Share your thoughts and feelings first with yourselves. Be real with the loss. Don't be concerned how others will see you and your loss. You want to grow from this. Do not say that it is back to life as before, because it is not. It will never be the same. You should always be hoping and striving that life will change for the better, for you, your household and all those who surround you.
In talking with these three fathers, I could not help but be impressed by their self-awareness, sensitivity, and ability to grow from their pain. I am sure that through articulating their thoughts, they clarified them for themselves as well as for the reader. It is my hope that this panel will be the first of many, and that in the very near future, the panel will focus on how to cope with our joy at seeing our lost children return home with techiyas hameisim (revival of the dead, which will occur in the Messianic era).