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loss of a child

Why I Say ‘It’s OK’ About My Son’s Death–When It’s Obviously Not

cemetery

My son Noah was buried with old, worn-out prayer books. The rabbi told us that this was an honor reserved for scholars and children. I loved that idea. In my state of shock, I remember being strangely excited about this as we discussed his burial the night before. We answered the rabbi’s questions. We told the rabbi what nicknames we had for him. Bubbie, Mr. Bubbie, Bubbieboy.

Six years later, I can’t remember anything the rabbi said at his graveside funeral. I remember the cantor singing. I remember my father and mother-in-law sitting in folding chairs; I was worried that one of them would faint. I remember looking around at all the faces. I saw family and friends holding each other up. My husband and I were seated, and my best friend Stacy sat next to me. We all held hands so tightly that my fingers were numb. At one point, I let out a guttural cry. It was very dramatic and very loud. And completely involuntary: It scared the hell out of me. I remember the rabbi stopping, too, visibly shaken. But after that I was silent. As if this one sound needed to emerge in order for me to continue to exist.

Noah was our only child. He was a few weeks shy of 2 years old. He was also the only child we ever planned on having. My mother-in-law would say, “Why mess with perfection?” My own mother had died three months prior to Noah’s accident. We were moving into my father’s house to save money and keep him company in his newly widowed life. The day of the accident was the first day we’d started moving things in. I was right there. No more than 20 feet from where Noah was playing in the house. Noah silently unlocked a door we never thought he could, or more importantly would, and silently walked outside, to my parents’ small in-ground swimming pool. It took just minutes.

When it was time to put the first shovel of dirt on Noah’s casket, the rabbi leaned in with the words, “It’s OK if you can’t.” But I wanted to show everyone I could. I stood up and looked down and saw those books in the grave. For some reason, I had thought they would be placed neatly. But they were in a heap. Dirty and old. I wondered if they had been tossed in or laid down carefully. I dumped in my small shovel of dirt.

When it was time to leave the cemetery, the rabbi had the more than 300 mourners line up on both sides of an uneven brick path. This tradition is meant to show the support of the community. But as my husband and I walked through the parted sea of people, I felt the need to thank them all and show I was still of sound body and mind–even though I clearly wasn’t. I saw the tears and fear in their eyes. I wanted, instinctively, to comfort them. I stopped to hug and thank and kiss and smile and whisper “it’s OK” to a few who looked most deeply shaken.

My internal auto-pilot continued in full force at the shiva. I led the conversations into funny memories, on to any subject other than Noah or the accident that took his life. My husband and I were overwhelmed by the number of people and those who came every single night. We were so thankful for the support, and we both felt the need to make our guests comfortable, despite that being the complete reverse of the idea of sitting shiva. We checked in with each other throughout the tragic yet strangely joyous “party”, bringing over people we wanted the other to meet.

My husband took occasional breaks to be by himself, but I was too afraid. Hosting, chatting, and inserting myself into conversations, I felt I was showing everyone I was still “me”–even though I wasn’t sure that was the case. Sneaking peaks under the covered mirror in the bathroom, I was surprised to see I looked the same.

Later, the hardest times for my husband and me both were when no one else was around. When shiva was over and it was just the two of us again. The physical absence of our little boy was cavernous. Waking up from any form of sleep was the worst. That space between asleep and awake. That punch in the face when you realize it wasn’t all a bad dream.

But around other people, the facade stayed up: “I’m OK, it’s OK, how are you?” What was I doing? Was my “happy-go-lucky” approach to life kicking in as a defense mechanism? Is personality so inescapable?

I threw myself into a new job only a month after Noah died. I had been a stay-at-home mom with financial help from my mother. I like to think she somehow knew those two years would be my only two years with my son. A premonition? She wanted me home with him. What a gift she gave me.

My husband needed to take time off from his job. He was suffering. I was pushing myself too hard. I was numb and distracted. We were lost in plain sight.

Somehow, I knew deep down that this was not going to be the end of our story, as much as it felt that way. It just couldn’t be. Plain and simple. Call it faith or fantasy, or most likely both, I was not surrendering my marriage or motherhood or this life it took me so long to achieve. There had to be a bigger picture. A greater purpose. I wrapped myself in this blind faith. We had nothing else to lose.

It’s been six years. If the subject of Noah’s death arises with a new friend or acquaintance, the first thing I always say is, “It’s OK!” Followed by, more truthfully, “I love talking about him. Please don’t feel bad.”

Conscious or not, personality-driven or learned, what’s certain is that comforting and reassuring others keeps my mind focused outward. Because while we’ve rebuilt our world since losing Noah, while we’ve made good on fantasy and faith, sometimes focusing inward is still just too hard.

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