Sometimes bad things happen, and they can ruin your life.
Say that your worst nightmare turns real. Say, perhaps, that the worst possible thing that most people can imagine happens to you. Say that one of your children dies.
What do you do? Do you curl up in a hole, or do you try to go on? Do you try to bring something good out of something terrible?
Elana Prezant of Haworth has decided to take what she learned from her family’s tragedy – the death of her daughter, Stephanie, in a rock-climbing accident three years ago, at 22 – and use that far-too-dear knowledge to help other people.
Working with the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, Ms. Prezant has begun a monthly support group for parents whose children have died. The group is meant to fill a gap that she felt acutely soon after Stephanie died.
|Elana, Jonathan, Jacqueline, and Stephanie Prezant in London.|
“After her accident, my son was really looking for other kids in his situation that he could connect with,” she said. Jonathan Prezant, then 20, was a college student: her other child, Jacqueline, was 17 and in high school. “That led me to look for a support group for him and for me. We would travel into New York City to a group called Compassionate Friends, because there wasn’t anything for us close by.
“We both needed it.”
Compassionate Friends is an international peer-led support group for parents and grandparents who have lost children, she said; some chapters have groups for siblings as well. It is structured so that every month people tell their stories; “it’s led by a group leader who has been through this tragedy and took on a leadership role,” Ms. Prezant said. “It helped me for a little while, but in the end people come and go as they need it.” She needed more continuity and structure.
Also, she pointed out, children’s deaths have different causes; she cannot identify as much with a parent who had to deal with the relentless march of an unstoppable disease as she can with another parent whose child was stolen by sudden accident, as hers was. “There are some emotions that we all go through, and some that are very personal,” she said she had learned from a grief counselor. There is a whole other layer of feelings when there is also the question of blame – in her case, for example, the climbing instructors whose negligence contributed to Stephanie’s death.
The Manhattan Compassionate Friends chapter had more turnover than she wanted, she said, so she found a group in White Plains, N.Y., that was more appropriate for her. “I felt a continuity and connection with them,” she said. Still, it was a 45-minute drive, and out of her community.
“I have been feeling the void in our community,” Ms. Prezant said. “And I have become more sensitive to tragedies around me. These are these constant ongoing tragedies, kids dying, and we are left with families with this hole in their lives.
“I felt that we needed a local support group in our community. Now that I am almost three years out from our tragedy, I feel that I am in a position to make something happen, and to help that next family.”
Although she could have opened a chapter of Compassionate Friends, she decided not to, Ms. Prezant said. “There is a strict format, and I almost felt like people were stuck in their grief, not moving forward. So if you walked in feeling that you were in a better place, you didn’t walk out uplifted, or at least I didn’t. I wanted our group to be more positive and hopeful.”
The group she has formed, called Holding Hands, meets on the second Wednesday of every month at JFS’s office in Teaneck. Like Compassionate Friends, it is “a peer-led support group, not a therapy group,” Ms. Prezant said. “I have personally reached out to parents who have lost children.”
It has met once so far; its next meeting is scheduled for next Wednesday, March 11, at 7:15 p.m..
“I had hoped that there would be more people than just my husband and me at our first meeting,” Ms. Prezant said. She needn’t have feared. “There were nine of us.
“One woman was much further out than the rest of us” – her child died 15 years ago, and she was there more as a source of strength and support than as a participant – “and a mom who lost her son eight months ago, and a dad who lost his son six months ago.
“There was a structure to the evening,” she continued. “We went around the room and introduced ourselves – there were three couples and three singles, six stories – and I started it and then it came back to me. I opened the conversation, and everyone talked and shared and opened up.
“People didn’t know each other – just two people sort of did because their children had had the same disease, many years apart – and I was the common denominator,” Ms. Prezant continued.
“Everyone opened up and shared and trusted their feelings with each other. It’s personal. It’s confidential. It was an inspiring evening. Everyone clearly needed this.”
One important kind of identity that had been missing at the other groups to which she had gone but was purposely present in this one was Jewishness, Ms. Prezant said. That common thread meant that some things could be said and understood without having to be explained. “For example, somebody talked about her parents being Holocaust survivors, and everyone knew what that meant. In that room, you knew.”
The doors opened at 7 and the group began formally at 7:15. It was to have ended after an hour and a half, “but I gave them another 10 minutes because they wanted to keep going.” It kept going informally even after it ended.
Ms. Prezant wants each evening to end on a positive note, so she has found quotes to give people as they head out. The first meeting’s thought came from an Eskimo legend explaining the lights of the night sky – “Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy.”
“My next goal is to put together a support group for siblings in their teens and 20s,” Ms. Prezant said; after all, her son’s need for such a group was why she started going to Compassionate Friends in the first place.
Stephanie’s death has given her “a mission and a direction,” she said. “Stephanie motivates me to do things in her memory, and sometimes just to do something good or right that I am able to do. That way, in my own private way, I honor her, too.
“This is my way of keeping her present.”
Susan Greenbaum is JFS’s executive director, and she has been a strong supporter of Holding Hands. “Bereavement for the loss of a child is an unspeakable concept for an unspeakable sort of loss,” she said. “At JFS, we are privileged to offer the space for parents to support one another and to seek comfort and healing together in a Jewish setting. We are truly honored to work with Elana Prezant to create Helping Hands.”
Holding Hands is not the Prezant family’s only way of holding onto Stephanie. On Sunday, March 14, the family will offer the third annual tribute concert in her memory at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly; her father, Jeffrey, and her brother will play, joined by other community musicians. (For information about that performance, call Robyn Rosenfeld at the JCC at 201-408-1429 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
And Holding Hands’ logo is yet another way of honoring Stephanie Iris Prezant. An iris stands tall, protected in the two clasped hands it shows.
“Stephanie absolutely motivates me,” her mother said. “It’s therapeutic for me, and it’s inspiring for other people to see someone doing something in the light of the tragedy. And in the darkness of the tragedy.”
|Who: Holding Hands
What: Support group for parents who have lost children
When: 2nd Wednesday of each month; next one is March 11. Doors open at 7, meeting begins 7:15
Where: Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, 1485 Teaneck Road, Teaneck
For more information: Call 201-837-9090 or email email@example.com.