Leah, tragically widowed at a young age, is a book-lover who recently became aware of The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden. In seeking information about my book, Leah discovered this blog and wrote me a touching note. In subsequent letters, we have discussed the differences and the similarities in the experience of losing a child or a spouse. I told Leah that the pain one feels in losing a husband or wife is the only grief that I can imagine approaches the endless pain of losing a child. Here is Leah’s thoughtful and articulate response.
A woman from my synagogue lost her son, at age fourteen, about six months after my husband died. She and I talked from time to time. Of course neither of us could know what the other was feeling, and everyone grieves differently anyway, but one difference between the loss of a child and the loss of a spouse became clear to me. And while I don’t think our particular feelings are universal, I do think that they are common. When you are married, you and your spouse become one in more ways than you can realize until you are reduced to half. And that is how I felt – like half of me was missing. I wanted, and still want, to be with my husband – whether here in this life, or in the next. But my friend did not agree when I asked her if she felt that way, too.
“No,” she said, about her son. “He should be here, living his life.”
“So, I think what you are saying,” I responded, “is that if you could change places with him you would.”
“In a heartbeat,” she said.
And that is the difference. A parent would give his/her life for a child. But you don’t want to die for your spouse you want to die with your spouse, and many do. It is well-documented that among the elderly, when one goes, the other often follows within the year. I have a daughter who turned 15 on Tuesday, so I am needed here, and here I’ll stay, but I do, in a way, look forward to the time of reuniting. I will never again fear death, because I know that wherever it is you go when you die, my husband is there.
I’m not sure why I wanted to say all that, except that I believe the difference between the loss of a spouse and the loss of a child is not in the depth of the grief. It’s just different, the way the relationships are different in life. You don’t love your child more or less than you love your spouse, you love them differently.
I try not to think about life without Karen, my wife of twenty-seven years, the love of my life since I was ten years old. But when you have lost a child, well, you realize that anything can happen, now everything is possible. Tragic scenarios unfold in my mind in endless permutations. It’s the dark side of being a writer: my imagination goes places I’d rather not follow. And so, when I ponder a life without Karen, all I see is a vast ocean of chilly nothingness; it is a fate worse than death. The Kabbalah says that when a loving husband and wife die they are reunited in heaven as a single being, a kind of Seraphic Janus. To be part of Karen, and I imagine also Ariel, is rather inviting.
Karen adds: These words ring so true. I can sum up the differences with an image. To be without my spouse would leave me lonely, divided, a twosome split. The emptiness is external. Imagine a picture torn in half. Without my son, the hole is an emptiness deep within me — a cavity at the very core. Robert helps fill the emptiness.