The grieving parent

Lately I’ve been contemplating how unexpected events in our lives can become paralyzing agents in the way we think, feel, and act. Events that cause us hardship, such as disease or an automobile accident, can be challenges that make us desperate and hopeless. But after talking to a number of parents who have lost a child, I thought that there is nothing more traumatic and devastating, no matter the age of the child.

One focus in this week’s parasha is on Jacob’s mourning for his 17-year-old son Joseph. Here we begin to grasp the nature of bereavement and its meaning to a parent when losing a child. We are exposed to Jacob’s pain, his emotions, and deep, desperate hopelessness after he learns that his beloved son Joseph is dead. The story tells us that Joseph’s brothers are angry and jealous because of Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph. At first they considered killing Joseph, but in the end they sell him to the Ishmaelites. In order to avoid suspicion of their involvement in Joseph’s disappearance, the brothers plot Joseph’s fake death. They dip Joseph’s robe in animal blood and take it to their father. Professor Nahum Sarna, in his “Jewish Publication Society Commentary on Genesis,” comments that when Jacob first sees the bloody robe, the full horror of the tragedy penetrates Jacob’s mind gradually. First he recognizes the robe; then its bloody appearance leads to the inference that a wild beast had devoured his son; then he had a vivid mental image of Joseph actually being torn to pieces. At last, Jacob cries out loud, “A vicious animal has killed my son (Genesis 37:33-35),” and he is overtaken by grief.

It is important to recognize that Jacob’s way of grieving is just one of several examples of bereaved parents in the Torah. We learn that people mourn in different ways, either by internalizing their pain or by expressing it. There are parents, like Jacob, who verbalize, cry, scream, and let out their pain. Jacob also tears his clothing and puts on sackcloth as a symbol of grief. King David grieves for his son Avshalom in an expressive way; he goes up to his chamber over the gate and weeps so loudly that everyone could hear him. He cries, “My son, my son Avshalom, Avshalom my son! I wish I would I had died instead of you, Avshalom, my son (II Samuel 18:33).” There are also parents who remain silent and hold on to their feelings, as Aaron did after his sons Nadav and Avihu were consumed by fire at the desert sanctuary (Leviticus 10:1-3). Lastly, there are parents, like Jacob, who remain in a chronic state of grief. Jacob explicitly expresses his deep emotions by telling his sons and daughters that he refuses to be comforted by them. He chooses to grieve for the rest of his life.

According to Jewish law, mourning practices for a child are broken into two periods of decreasing intensity. The shiva period of seven days is followed by 30 days of grieving. These periods allow the full expression of grief, while giving the mourner a chance to gradually return to a normal life. Clearly, such a loss is so great that in some cases we see that the mourners are never truly consoled. Even when Jacob’s family tries to help him live with his loss, Jacob can only see himself grieving with no end. The text does not tell us what words his children used to comfort Jacob and help him return to reality. We hope that they recognized and understood the complexities of their father’s emotions and avoided relying on preconceived ideas about the way he was supposed to grieve. Interesting is the commentary by Rabbi Isaac Karo (Toledo, 1458), who said that one explanation of Jacob’s refusal to be comforted has to do with what people say to mourners. There was the custom in Rabbi Karo’s time to comfort the bereaved by telling them that with time their sorrow will eventually end and their mind will take over, so that the dead will be forgotten by the heart (we are familiar with the phrase “Time heals all wounds”). Rabbi Karo understood that it is improper to say such things to a bereaved parent; he believed that Jacob could not be comforted because he could not accept this cliché. Jacob could not conceive of the idea that he would eventually forget Joseph.

Jacob’s grief gives us the sense that Joseph was and would remain an integral part of Jacob’s self; thus Jacob had lost a part of himself. Because he had no hope for the future and saw no value to his life without Joseph he declared, “I will go down to my son, in mourning, to Sheol.” In desperation, he wished to go down to the spirit underworld, where he believed Joseph’s spirit resided. Sheol is the most frequently used term in biblical Hebrew for the perceived place of the dark and shadowy underworld for the spirits of the dead, a place of no return. Even today in the modern Hebrew language, Sheol is metaphorically used to describe people’s deep state of grief and despair. Likewise, in her book, “Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair,” the psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan equates Sheol with “dark emotions” of fear, despair, and grief. Greenspan writes that our culture does not encourage expressing these emotions because to do so is considered a sign of emotional breakdown or weakness. Society instead wants us to ignore, minimize, or master emotions that cause us discomfort. Greenspan suggests that we “attend to, befriend, and surrender to the energies of grief, despair, and fear.” Putting it in another way, we are encouraged to follow Jacob and David’s examples of deeply experiencing and expressing painful emotions.

There are three pivotal teachings about bereavement in this parasha. First, it challenges our notion that all bereaved parents mourn for their children in similar ways. We cannot expect any one given pattern in bereavement, and surely, we must support those who mourn, no matter how long and in what way.

The second teaching has to do with our cultural norms regarding gender differences in mourning practices. While our Torah specifically provides examples of grieving fathers, it is important to note that in our society a mother’s grief for a child is more acknowledged than a father’s. We need to move away from the cultural notion that men must internalize their feelings. We have the obligation to recognize the fact that fathers also feel very isolated during their own times of grief, even if they do not express their pain out loud. We want to encourage bereaved fathers to be like Jacob and King David and freely express their pain in the presence of trusted loved ones and the community.

And lastly, the third teaching for us is to show and tell bereaved parents that they are not alone in their grief. David had the whole nation cry and mourn with him. Jacob was surrounded by his children. Community and family support are our responsibility in times like these. When the grieving parents learn how important it is to express their pain to someone who will understand and acknowledge their feelings, they will experience relief with the affirmation of their tragedy, without worrying about being judged. Ideally, they will see a way to rise up from their own Sheol and be sufficiently comforted by love and compassion.

While life holds many unexpected shattering events, the unnatural scene of a parent burying a child is one of the most difficult to deal with. I wish for all of us to have the courage to face these events with faith, and to believe that at such moments God is watching over and crying with us. May we continue walking on the path of consolation and comfort, so that no one has to face his or her time of grief alone.