Grief Has No Timeline

Recently I was contacted by an old acquaintance. We live on opposite ends of the country, so we don’t see each other at all. In fact, we really don’t have any contact with one another except maybe once or twice a year via phone or text. On this occasion, she caught me at a bad time. I was feeling low and extremely depressed over the loss of my son. After a few basic greetings, the texting back and forth went something like this:

Her: Maybe I’ll call you next week.

Me: It’s not really a good time. It’s very hard for me emotionally right now.

Her: Why? Was there a tragedy in the family?

Me: I don’t remember if I told you that my son Jacob passed away awhile ago.

Her: Yes you did. I sent you a card. That was a year ago.

I was thinking to myself, ‘Yes it was, it was a year ago.’ That was the end of the texting. She’s not a mean or bad person. She just doesn’t understand what it’s like to lose a child.

Why Does Halacha Require a Longer Mourning Period For a Parent Than For a Child?

In Judaism, there are ritual mourning practices that we observe over the loss of a loved one. Whether for parent, sibling, spouse, or child the laws are the same for the first thirty days. An example of a few of these laws are abstaining from parties, listening to music, or buying new clothing. The ritual mourning observances for a parent, in all their entirety, are observed for a whole year, whereas only one month of mourning is observed for all other close relatives.

Why is that? I always found it quite strange that we observe the trappings of mourning a whole year for a parent, whereas for a child, only one month of mourning is mandated. I think that, by nature, we are more emotionally attached to our children than our parents.

Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik (1903-1993), a major Rabbi, Talmudist, and philosopher, was perplexed as to why there are twelve months of ritual mourning for a parent and only thirty days for a child. The parent may have lived a long and full life, whereas the life of the child was cut short. The latter is certainly more emotionally devastating.

Rabbi David Brofsky in his Hilkhot Avelut quotes Rabbi Yosef Blau’s book, Memories of a Giant, and explains the following. Rabbi Soloveitchik, attempting to answer his own question, stated that the dependency of child on a parent decreases over time. Feelings of loss are sometimes lessened by any infirmity of the parent. So that the child recognizes the true relationship with the parent, and to acknowledge the great debt the child owes the parent, the period of mourning is much longer. According to Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, a parent’s passing pushes us further away from the revelation at Mount Sinai. Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Teitz says the mitzvah of honoring parents continues even after their passing, hence the additional time of mourning.

In contrast, when a parent loses a child, mourning is a natural response. Halakhah does not need to tell the parent to mourn for the child.

Is It Abnormal For Me to Still Cry Over the Loss of My Child?

I asked my Rabbi if it was abnormal for me to still be crying over the loss of my son. On the contrary, he said, it’s normal. He said that if I wasn’t still crying, it wouldn’t be normal. He told me that several years ago, he lost his sister to illness. She left behind several children. These kids are now having bar and bat mitzvahs, and it pains him greatly that his sister isn’t there to see it. He says that, sometimes, he will go to a private place to cry, then return to the simcha.

There’s a very real emotional side to mourning a child which the halachah doesn’t deal with. Losing a child isn’t like losing a parent, sibling, or spouse. The child is a physical and emotional part of the parent. Rabbi Asher Resnick once said to me that losing a child is like losing a limb. Every day, we wake up and we see that the limb is gone. So it is with losing a child. The pain of grief lasts forever. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, speaking after his wife passed away, said that the intellect understands that grief has a timeline. Our emotional heart does not.

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