Recovering from a tragic loss

I had a dialogue with torontopearl that may warrant a wider readership. Torontopearl takes the position that some deaths are so tragic, it is impossible for loved ones ever to recover from their loss.

I am not in a position to form a conclusion on the specific example that introduces our dialogue. But I respecfully disagree with torontopearl’s stance. I believe that loved ones can surface from grief and find renewed meaning and joy in life.

A father’s grief

[posted by torontopearl, April 12, 2005; original article at Seraphic Secret]

Every so often a well-meaning idiot will tell me that “God never gives us more than we can bear.” When I hear this outrageous cliche I really feel like punching the person who says it. Where did they get such a stupid idea? In fact, HaShem gives us more than we can bear on a daily basis. Yes, we manage to live through these terrible experiences, we manage to endure, to survive, but we are never the same, and we are often diminished by the suffering, irrevocably harmed. I do not believe that suffering is noble or holy; it is just awful.

It is 2:40 AM, and I cannot sleep because Karen is preparing for Pesach and every shelf cleaned, every corner mopped, every book opened and dusted for crumbs only brings home the fact that Ariel will not be sitting at the Passover seder with us. He will not be reliving the Exodus from Egypt with us. He will not be explaining to us his sharp and penetrating insights into the Haggadah. He will not be smiling at the Passover table, enjoying this wonderful holiday. Ariel’s last Pesach was in the hospital, in the ICU where he was forced to celebrate the seder behind an oxygen mask, and our Passover table was that little slab of formica on wheels that’s hardly big enough for two matzos. We recited the whole Hagaddah, but it was an effort for him and at the end, he fell back into an exhausted sleep….

It is 2:55 AM, and I cannot sleep because I am writing two scripts under intense deadline pressure and I have not been spending as much time as I should writing the next volume of The Hebrew Kid. I’m also afraid that I will never be able to make the second book as good as the first. I wrote The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden while Ariel was still alive. He helped me. He inspired me. He made me a better writer with his criticism and insights. But now he is gone and I suspect that I’m not as good a writer anymore. Without him, my imagination stalls.

It is 3:00 AM, and I cannot sleep because I am sitting in the dark in my bedroom with my computer on my lap typing this blog. I am afraid to go to sleep because I dream of Ariel most every night and when I wake up my face is wet with tears.

My dialogue with Torontopearl

Q said…

A very moving entry. I hope Mr. Avrech will be able to accept his loss, when enough time has passed.

My family has experienced a lot of tragedy. My brother died, and a sister, and a nephew (my brother’s son), and a cousin. My parents have borne all this grief and more. My father’s brother died before I was born, and there are other kinds of family tragedy aside from premature death.

My father has a kind of slogan that he reminds me of from time to time: “Life consists of a series of small miracles.” He means that God has sustained him through the times of despair, providing just what he needed in a timely manner.

Somehow, when he looks back, he does not see a life littered with major tragedies. He sees God’s hand at work in a series of small miracles. I don’t know how he does it; I stand in awe of him.

Thank you for sharing Mr. Avrech’s words with your online public. I don’t mean to find fault with him (certainly not!). But I wanted to point out, perhaps for the benefit of your other readers, that it is possible to survive grief and come out smiling on the other side.

That is not a small miracle, but a great one.

torontopearl said…

I’m sorry about your personal losses.

Like anything in life, each situation is individual — based on its dynamics — whether or not the results are the same.

I’ve been following Robert Avrech’s blog entries for half a year.

I can’t imagine that he and his family can ever “accept” their loss, even if they are faith-abiding people; I can only imagine that they will continue to “endure” their loss…although I wish I could say otherwise.

Q said…

I hesitated to use the word accept. Without articulating it, I decided I could use it in its technical sense.

That is, I was thinking of Kubler-Ross’s famous work, On Death and Dying. According to Kubler-Ross, the final stage of the grieving process is acceptance. (Kubler-Ross was writing about coming to terms with one’s own impending death, but psychologists commonly apply her model to the grieving process for other kinds of losses as well.)

I’m sure accept doesn’t mean “it’s all right with me that my brother (or son, or whomever) died.” It must mean something else, but something nonetheless significant: “I’m able to find joy and meaning in the business of daily living, despite the tragic loss I suffered in years past.”

The alternative to acceptance is perpetual wretchedness. Thus, in my use of the word accept I meant something akin to the summation of my comment: “it is possible to survive grief and come out smiling on the other side.”

Surely, with God’s help, we can reach the summit of that slope, though its incline is steep.

I take your point, that each situation is individual, but I’m not sure where the thought leads. I assume you are not suggesting that my father’s losses are somehow less tragic than Mr. Avrech’s loss, and therefore easier to recover from.

torontopearl said…

G-d forbid I should imply or hint that your personal losses are any different. No different at all; it’s the grieving process that is different for everyone. But your father has reached a vantage point on that terribly high summit, where he can reveal the beautiful and true observation that life is a series of small miracles — I think we live for miracles, and we live from miracle to miracle. Just giving birth is a miracle, just having the ability and sense to grieve is a miracle in its own way — it shows that we are human.

I thank you for sharing *your* story and insights.

You should read the earliest entries of Seraphic Secret, Robert Avrech’s blog. You can’t help but become so caught up in another family’s pain, in that “wretchedness” that you’ve described.

I’m so glad that your family has proven that they can smile through, and in spite of, the tears…

Q said…

Likewise, it was never my intention to minimize the depth of Mr. Avrech’s suffering, or to suggest that Ariel’s death is anything less than tragic. I only hope that Mr. Avrech and his family can eventually surface from their grief. And I know from my family’s experience that to hope is not absurd.

torontopearl said…

Q, thanks for your thoughts. Just one lingering comment from me, which might also help clarify the depth of the Avrech family’s pain.

It isn’t just that their son, Ariel, passed away at the age of twenty-two, but he became sick at the age of fourteen. For eight years, Ariel was riding a physical roller coaster, as well as an emotional and mental one…and his parents, sisters, other family members, friends and community were right there alongside, riding it with him.

And I guess, just like roller coasters are designed, there were some highs and many lows along the way, times to shut one’s eyes out of fear, times to clutch the person beside you rather tightly, times to yell, “Get me off this ride — I don’t like it.” But alas, that roller coaster kept up with its run…

post script

I note that torontopearl is echoing Mr. Avrech’s own convictions. In his “About me” blurb, Mr. Avrech writes, “People tell me that time heals, but Karen and I know that is not true.”

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kay aka Kirsten
    Apr 22, 2005 @ 03:12:00

    Although I think that time can have a healing benefit, and that it is possible for some to come through the worst of tragedies and still be able to smile, I’m not sure that that means it is always possible.

    Simply, for some people it is harder than others. Be it their personality, their past experiences, their social support or their brain chemistry, some people do not recover.

    The companion cliche to the one about God never giving us more than we can bear, is the one that says what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. This is plainly rot, when you consider the number of people in the world suffering enormously from post traumatic stress syndrome, many of whom simply never do get back to the healthy life they had before the trauma. Would they recover with the right help? I don’t know.

    I’m not speaking from personal experience of traumatic loss, but from strong family experience of clinical depression.

    I’m not suggesting that this is a good theraputic tack to take with someone who has recently suffered a major loss (‘buck up – though you’ll never get over it of course’), simply that it is worth being aware of.


  2. Q
    Apr 23, 2005 @ 19:37:00

    Thanks for making my blogging experience interactive, Kay.

    I agree with the points you’re making: that it isn’t always possible to recover from a tragedy, and that recovery (even from a relatively insignificant loss) may be impossible for some people.

    I can identify with your family’s history of clinical depression. There’s a pronounced history of depression and other psychological disorders in my family, too. That’s what I was hinting at when I said, “there are other kinds of family tragedy aside from premature death.” In fact, some of the premature deaths in my family were suicides.

    That some people do not recover is plain to me. My father’s example is inspirational, at least for me, because it illustrates the opposite point: some people do recover.

    In my view, even among those who have the additional complication of a psychiatric disorder, some will be able to recover.

    You raise an additional consideration when you bring up post-traumatic stress disorder. Throughout my dialogue with torontopearl, I was thinking of tragedies that fall within the range of normal human experience. The death of Mr. Avrech’s son fits into that category: profoundly tragic, to be sure, but an experience shared by millions of parents in every generation (including my parents).

    Post-traumatic stress disorder, on the other hand, arises from events outside the range of normal human experience. I don’t assume it is impossible to recover from such tragedies, but my father’s experience does not speak to such situations.


  3. Jack's Shack
    Apr 27, 2005 @ 12:04:00

    Ray Charles had a great line, “They say that time heals a broken heart, but since you have been gone time has stood still.”

    From I can’t stop loving you


  4. Q
    Apr 29, 2005 @ 11:51:00

    Some people do get stuck at a specific point in the grieving process. I’m probably over-analyzing, but that’s what the lyric makes me think of.

    According to Kubler-Ross, people also repeat stages. Reaching the “acceptance” stage doesn’t mean you’ll never again be jolted back to anger or depression. “Acceptance” only means the loss doesn’t have to dominate your mental horizons to the exclusion of other pursuits.


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