Child Loss and Dealing with Guilt

I Felt Guilty When My Child Suddenly Died

When I lost my son, the nagging feelings of guilt set in and made me more miserable than I already was. I thought to myself, ‘Was there something I could have done to prevent what happened?’. 

Jacob, being a stoic young man, never complained about physical ailments. I could see he wasn’t feeling well. I begged him over and over to go to the doctor. He wouldn’t. He said it would get better. And he was getting better, on and off. Sometimes he seemed fine, other times he seemed not well. Three weeks later, on Shabbat morning, his heart stopped. 

Hindsight is always 20/20. Looking back at those few weeks, we didn’t know that he had signs of congestive heart failure. Tests indicated a massive blood clot. One of my friends is a physician. She told me with certainty, that if he had gone to the emergency room, his symptoms would have been misdiagnosed as bronchitis, pneumonia, or something else. No one would suspect that a twenty-four year old healthy boy would be suffering from heart failure. 

Why Do I Have Feelings of Guilt?

For parents who have lost a child, feelings of guilt can be overwhelming.

Because I think I’m the one in control of my life. I don’t let G-d into the picture. It’s up to me to do it all, and if I don’t succeed, I’ve failed. How can I break out of this mindset?

Because we’re human, we’re not perfect. We do the best we can. After that, all we can do is let G-d take care of the rest. We forget that we are not in control. G-d is in control. Despite our efforts, if He desires otherwise, that’s how it will be. It’s called Hashgacha Pratit, translated as Divine Providence.

What Exactly is Hashgacha Pratit?

I can view how G-d’s runs the world in one of two ways. I can view Him as a passive creator who steps back from His creations and merely ‘watches’ from above. He knows everything that goes on in my life but remains a bystander and allows nature to run its course. Or instead, I can view G-d as a creator who is constantly concerned about me and arranges everything that occurs in my life. From the greatest event to the most minute detail, G-d is in control and orchestrates it all for my good. This later way of thinking about G-d is the definition of Hashgacha Pratit.

A Baal Shem Tov Story – The Leaf and the Worm

G-d takes care of all His creations, even a little worm.

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of the Chasidic movement, was once walking through the forest on a hot day. He showed his students a leaf that had just blown from a tree and came to rest on the ground. When the leaf was picked up, the students noticed a tiny worm which had been resting in the shade of that leaf.

The Baal Shem Tov said that G-d had arranged that this particular leaf fall off this particular tree at this particular time to provide shade and comfort for that little worm. With this simple belief in Hashgacha Pratit, that G-d in His infinite goodness takes interest in every single one of His creations, there’s no such thing as a coincidence or a chance occurrence.

Everything Occurs in its Proper Time

“…there is a time for everything under heaven” (Koheles 3:1)

Any event in my life will occur at exactly the time G-d wills it to happen. Numerous sources describe this concept. From the Gemara, Rabbi Chanina says:

“Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven.” (Berachos 33b)

The ‘fear of Heaven’ means whether or not we decide to perform G-d’s will. Moral and ethical choices are left to us. The rest is in G-d’s hands. 

Did Our Matriarch Sarah Die Before Her Time?

The idea that everything occurs in its proper time is further borne out in the Torah. The narrative of the near sacrifice of Isaac at the Akeidah in Parsha Vayeira is immediately followed by the mention of Sarah’s death at the beginning of Parsha Chaye Sarah. Targum Yonatan states that upon learning that Isaac was taken for a sacrifice, Sarah cried out in anguish and passed away. From the juxtaposition of the two events, it would seem that Sarah passed away before her time when she thought that Isaac had been sacrificed. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky says, no, Sarah did not pass away prematurely. He explains that in Parsha Toldos, an elderly Isaac is preparing to give his son Esau his final blessings and says to him:

“…See, now, I have aged; I do not know the day of my death.” Toldos 27:2 

Isaac was considering his possible demise because he was now within five years of the age that his mother Sarah passed away. However, it makes no sense for Isaac to even consider this possibility if Sarah had died before her time. Thus, Sarah did not die before her time. Sarah’s time had come and it was the Akeidah that triggered it.

Abraham’s Servant, Eliezer, Meets Rebecca At the Well

An example of lighting fast Hashgacha pratit occurs when Abraham instructs his servant, Eliezer, to travel to his home town and find a wife for his son Isaac. Upon arriving there, Eliezer prays that a one who would be suitable for Issac appear before him, thus making his trip a success. Immediately, after concluding his prayer, he notices Rebecca going to the well. G-d’s answer to Eliezer’s prayer was so fast, that while he was still speaking, Hashgacha pratit caused Rebecca to choose that particular time to leave home and go draw water from the well.

Life’s events aren’t random occurrences. G-d knows what He’s doing.

Hashgacha Pratit is for Everyone

Although the examples of Hashgacha pratit given here speak of righteous people on a high spiritual level, G-d lovingly guides the life of everyone.

G-d Wants Little Me

The fact that G-d is concerned about every single person is further described by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812). He explains in Tanya, Likkutei Amarim chapter 41, that even though G-d created this vast physical universe and the infinite number of spiritual worlds, He gives special attention to to our planet earth and all its inhabitants. Not only that, G-d desires the service of each individual. He quotes G-d speaking to the prophet Jeremiah:

“… ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ (Jeremiah 23:24)

Thus, G-d is the only existence, there’s nothing besides Him.

And in addition, Rabbi Shneur Zalman says:

“…a person is obligated to say “For my sake the world was created”…And G-d stands over each person…and He looks to see if he is serving Him appropriately.”

G-d wants and cares about this physical world, and because G-d created the world from Himself, he intimately knows all of His creations. From everything He created, on the land, in the sky, under the sea, both living and inanimate, out to the realms of outer space, He desires a personal relationship with each and every one. As King David says in Psalms:

“…He counts the number of stars, to all of them he gives names.” (Tehillim 147:4)

G-d is involved with every detail of my life. When I speak to Him, He listens as if I’m the only one in the world. He wants and cares about everyone, even me. G-d feels my grief, and He’s sad because I’m sad.

Coping With the Fact that We’re Not in Control

When I think I control everything that occurs in my life I feel empowered. But this empowerment comes with a price. I have miserable feelings of guilt and grief when life events don’t go the way I want. By acknowledging and internalizing Hashgacha pratit, G-d’s Divine Providence, I’m better prepared for life’s disappointments, including the terrible disappointment of child loss.

Despite the young age of twenty-four years, Jacob’s life was complete. G-d brought him into this world at the proper time and took him back at the proper time. I think about this concept often in the grief over losing my child. I hope and pray, that with the coming of Moshiach, we will all finally understand the ways of the Infinite One. I pray a day will come when a parent will no longer bury a son or daughter, and child loss will be something of the past. May it be speedily in our days when grief will cease, as the prophet says: 

“Death will be eliminated forever, and G‑d will wipe the tears from every face.” (Isaiah 25:8)

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