Trying to Find Purpose in the Death of a Child

I’m a member of an exclusive club. It’s called the child loss club. I didn’t ask to join it. The dues are extremely high. Sometimes the dues are so high I wonder how I’ll get through another month. I’ve tried reaching out to the membership office (aka Heaven) but no one answers, so I can’t cancel my membership. Through grief support groups, I meet other people who are also members of this club. They’re nice folks, but I wish I’d never met them. After all, if my child didn’t die, our paths would never have crossed.

Experiencing the death of a child is like being a member of a club I never wanted to join.

I want to walk around like a normal person, not like an unfortunate member of a club no one wants to be a part of. I want a plan that will take away the emotional suffering I experience each day from the death of my child. I’ve discussed my problem with fellow club members. They’ve got the same problem. They’re suffering too. I’ve discussed my problem with three different therapists, asking each one how to get rid of my suffering. Although nice people, they haven’t given me a plan. They tell me to get a life, to get out of the house and be around people. Getting out of the house and being around people is fine, but it’s a diversion, a bandaid, not a plan to remove the suffering I feel from the death of my child.

Even around people, I still feel alone because I’m a member of an exclusive club.

I’ve come to the sad conclusion that there’s really nothing that can remove the emotional pain of child loss. The loss happened, it is what it is. Losing a child is painful, and the pain will continue for the rest of my life. 

Although child loss causes me pain, do I have to suffer?

Pain vs Suffering Over the Death of a Child

Surprisingly, the meaning of the words pain and suffering are not the same as explained by Rabbi Asher Resnick. For over thirty years, Rabbi Resnick has been teaching core concepts in Judaism at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. Rabbi Resnick is also a member of the child loss club, and has written extensively on coping with life challenges from a Jewish perspective. 

Rabbi Resnick’s book, Pain is a Reality Suffering is a Choice, discusses the pain of child loss versus the suffering of losing a child which, for many people, lingers long after the tragedy.

The Missing Limb Analogy of Child Loss

The pain of losing a child is like losing a limb.

Rabbi Resnick explains that each day I’ll see that the limb is gone. There may even be phantom physical pain where the limb used to be. Thinking about this missing limb causes painful anguish, and I’ll be aware of its absence for the rest of my life. However, I will somehow find ways to adjust my life so that I can function without the missing limb. In this example, although I have emotional pain (because I see the limb is not there), I don’t have emotional suffering because I’ve found ways to deal with its loss and move on with life.

When trying to cope with child loss however, the missing limb analogy breaks down. In the missing limb example, it’s easier for me to find ways to modify my life because I know why I lost the limb (for example, like accident or illness). Knowing why gives me comfort and some amount of closure. But in my real life situation of child loss, I don’t know why my child died. I don’t know why G-d took him away at such a young age. I don’t know why he wasn’t allowed to marry and raise a family. I don’t know why my son had no future.

On the one hand, there’s the pain I experience from my child not being here. On the other hand, there’s the day to day suffering, the ‘why’, which fills all my activities and interactions with other people. It’s this distinction between pain and suffering that Rabbi Resnick addresses.

What’s Really Bothering the Bereaved Parent is ‘Why Did my Child Die?’

The nagging question of ‘why’ is the source of my suffering and that of every bereaved parent.

Citing sources from the Gemara, he explains that the emotional turmoil a bereaved parent experiences is two-fold. First, there’s the shock and pain of losing a child. Second, there’s the nagging question of why did my child have to die. Every day, I wonder why I’m a member of the child loss club. And it’s the not knowing why that continues to gnaw at me.

In Judaism there’s a concept called nechamah. Nechamah, usually translated as comfort, means that my goal as a bereaved parent is to attain comfort or closure over the death of my child. But how can I ever find any comfort or closure?

Rabbi Resnick teaches a very interesting insight about what nechamah really is. He explains that nechamah, which means comfort, also means to try to find out ‘why’:

‘…the Gemara describes nechamah as the process of “seeking reasons”. This tells us that nechamah is not merely a feeling; it is also a process of trying to understand.’ (Pain is a Reality Suffering is a Choice, page 22)

Judaism recognizes that I have painful questions to ask, and acknowledges that I have a right to ask those questions. 

As expressed by Rabbi Resnick:

‘The essence of nechamah, then, is the awareness and personal acceptance that everything – both the obviously beneficial as well as the seemingly tragic – fits within the larger context of G-d’s hashgachah (supervision) and love for us.’ (Pain is a Reality Suffering is a Choice, page 22)

If my son’s death had no purpose, this would surely be tragic, something from which I could never find nechamah, or comfort. But I know that his passing did have a purpose. I know G-d has a reason for everything He does, even though I don’t know what the reason is. 

Choosing Pain or Suffering

So, like the title of Rabbi Resnick’s book, I have to make a choice. I can choose to view my child’s death as purposeless, feeling angry and cheated. Or, I can choose to acknowledge that just as my son’s life had meaning, his passing has meaning too. Maybe when I get up to the Heavenly throne after 120 years, I’ll finally know the meaning of my son’s short life. Till then, I just have to keep reminding myself that there’s a very good reason why I’m a member of the child loss club. Although it seems tragic to me right now, that reason is rooted in G-d’s goodness.

Thinking that there’s a purpose to my child’s death is not an easy thought to internalize. I know there will be days when I’ll forget this thought entirely, returning to the anger and grief that has been with me for so long. But just as my child is always alive in my thoughts, I’m going to try keep this thought alive as well.

To be continued…

Pain is a Reality, Suffering is a Choice by Rabbi Asher Resnick may be purchased on Amazon

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