Chai Lifeline Retreat Part I
The compassionate psychologist looks around the circle of men, wishes us a good Shabbos and suggests that we introduce ourselves and then say whatever it is we want to say. He nods to the man on his right to begin. I sit directly to the left of the psychologist, which means that I will be last to speak.
Mr. White says: "Gam zu L'tova." Which means that in the end God has a plan and it is for the best. We cannot know this plan, we cannot understand it, but we must have emunah, faith. He continues, "My son died when I was in Israel. I feel guilty about this. Could I have done something if I was with him? No, of course not. But still I feel guilty."
Mr. White, in his mid-sixties, a Boro Park businessman, rambles for a good five minutes. He quotes one verse after another. He lectures the one Reform Jew in our group, as if we who are observant have this absolute right. It is condescending and I am embarrassed by this utterly inappropriate behavior. Yet I say nothing because this man's son died and we all go a bit crazy as we live out our lives as orphan fathers. To his credit, the young Reform man, next to speak, is exquisitely polite.
"My name is Mr. Black. My son died in my arms when he was four years old. I respect your religious beliefs. But your way of coping is not mine."
Mr. White rudely interrupts with another pasuk, another Talmudic quote, but the psychologist wisely and gently cuts him off.
Mr. Black finishes: "I don't know why I'm here. I was here last year. My wife wanted to come. We'll see."
I feel a lump forming; it's like a walnut in my throat.
Next to speak is Mr. Brown. He's a young man who wears a black hat; he's not in yeshiva anymore, but out in the world, earning a living, supporting a wife and child.
He says: "I lost my daughter after a long illness. She had a big heart. I mean that figuratively and literally. Her heart was too big. The doctors looked at the X-rays and they couldn't believe their eyes. She died from cardiac hypertension. Basically, her heart exploded in her chest..." Thick tears are running down his face. I realize that my eyes are misting over. He continues: "I have this basic conflict. I know she's in Gan Eden, heaven--a perfect place. But I ask myself: if I could, would I take her back if it was possible?"
To myself I say: I would move heaven and earth to get Ariel back. Ariel is in Gan Eden too, but I know that he wanted to live. He battled for life every inch of the way. Never for a moment did we discuss death. The possibility never arose. I trust you, Ariel repeatedly told us. For me there is no conflict. Am I selfish? Do I lack faith? It doesn't matter. I want my son back.
I like Mr. Brown. I admire his ability to come face to face with this basic theological conflict. I also like his tears. He is not afraid to cry in front of other men. This takes courage.
Mr. Gray is a Satmar Chassid. His caftan shines like sealskin. Yiddish is his first language and he has difficulty expressing his feelings in English. The words emerge haltingly. "My tochter, my daughter, I lost her several years ago. When she was in a coma I asked her doctor, a very nice colored woman, if it was possible for her to come out of it. Basically, I was asking fora miracle. The doctor, she told me that anything is possible, that I should have faith and pray. But the Eibeshte needed her more than my wife and me."
The Satmar Chassid's face is gaunt, like a face painted by Goya. He strokes his beard, shrugs his shoulders.
By now, tears are dripping from my eyes.
Next up is Dr. Green. "I lost my sixteen year old daughter two years ago to cancer. I'm here because I have not had a chance to mourn properly. My wife is divorcing me and I've been so involved in the divorce that my daughter... I wanted to talk about our daughter. My wife didn't. I need to talk, to grieve."
Another physician speaks: "My daughter had a rare form of cancer, melanoma in the eye, so rare that it only appears once every ten years. So there is no research into the disease and the treatment is basic and brutal. First they took out here eye -- and then it got worse and worse. She loved Camp Simcha. Right before she died she wanted to come, but the doctors said she was too sick. My wife and I spoke with Camp Simcha. We wanted to know if it would be okay for her to come to camp, and perhaps die here..."
I have to blow my nose. The walnut in my throat is the size of a melon and hot tears are cutting thick channels down my face.
"These wonderful people at Camp Simcha met among themselves and their doctors and decided to grant our request. They even had a helicopter on call, just in case. But she died before she could come."
The physician is weeping. He hunches over and holds his head in his hands as if to keep it from exploding.
A young Monsey kollel student says: "My wife and I lost two children... babies. We still don't know what happened. It wasn't SIDS. We have two more children now, but one of them, we're very, very worried about." He looks down into his lap. His hands are clenched tight. Fingers white as snowflakes.
This man has lost two children; and yet he still walks, still breathes. From where does he draw such strength?
The psychologist looks at me. It is my turn to speak. It is not just Ariel swimming before my eyes, filling my consciousness, now all these other children move into my heart.
It is Shabbos, the holiest time in the Jewish calendar and the pure souls of these children seem to hover over this group of broken men.
"My name is Robert Avrech..." I manage to whisper. "My son, Ariel..." My voice breaks. Tears explode from my eyes. I am sobbing loudly, my chest is heaving. I cannot breath much less speak. I rise, flee to the bathroom where I cry and shudder and heave for I don't know how long.
The moment I heard that the men and women would be in separate groups I felt vulnerable and fragile. Without Karen, I am lost.
It is Shabbos in Camp Simcha. Karen and I have flown three thousand miles to take part in a Shabbos for bereaved parents. I am not normally interested in group therapy, usually I mock support groups, putting them in the same category as crystals and red threads around the wrist. But everything is different now that my son Ariel is dead. Karen and I agreed that if we didn't come we would always wonder if we had made a mistake.
I am in the bathroom in Camp Simcha. I am crying uncontrollably. I have said just eight words and already I have slipped over the edge into a state of bottomless grief. How will I get through this Shabbos?
Karen adds: Yes, the women and men were separated. I guessed (correctly) that this is done for both religious reasons and to facilitate sharing. Previous experience has found that men are extremely hesitant to bare their souls when their wives are present. The professionals have found that men, (even in same sex groups) try to solve, explain, rationalize, and ultimately theologize in the bereavement discussions. The women's discussions are dynamic, spiralling from one topic to another, spinning webs of all types of feelings, associations, with tears, laughter and compassion. So it was Friday night too. When theological explanations were offered they were accepted, but alternate opinions were voiced, and there was not an ounce of condescension or preaching. We accepted our differences and embraced our common bonds. Yes, sisterhood is powerful.