All through Shabbos, men from the group I fled from Friday night come over to offer words of comfort. Said one man: “Your tears said everything we wanted to say but couldn’t.” Fearing another emotional meltdown, I skip the next group meeting. Instead I stay in my room, read and nap. Karen and I take a walk around the lovely grounds. We feel peaceful and removed from the real world. It is Shabbos and some wonder if it’s proper to take part in these grief meetings, after all, on Shabbos we are commanded to rejoice.
But there is happiness in Camp Simcha. On Friday night the men sit around two large tables and fervently sing Shabbos z’miros until late at night. Even I, a loner by nature, sit nearby and allow myself to be swept along by the soaring melodies. If a stranger were to step into this room, he would have no idea that every man and woman in the room has lost a child. He would have no inkling that the men who sing with such love and devotion have had their worlds annihilated. Here are men and women who exist in a separate plane from all others. To lose a child is to live in a world that forces you to recognize a betrayal in your life and there will be no armistice.
On the last day of the retreat, I choose to attend the final group session.
The men nod at me as I take my seat. I ask the psychologist if I can say a few words. He gives me a single nod of the head.
“I’m here out of respect for this group, for all of you who sought me out during Shabbos, who offered chizuk and nechama.”
Men offer closing thoughts and before too long I am cringing. The men take refuge behind p’sukim. They wield chapter and verse like weapons. Each one trying to top the other with a more clever, a more sophisticated quote from Talmud or better yet, form some obscure work of halacha. Unlike the women who, Karen reports, speak from the gut, from the heart, who attempt to confront and analyze their innermost feelings, the men cloak themselves in the armor of chapter and verse. Schooled in the mental discipline of the Beis Midrash, the men have nothing left to fall back on.
“God has a plan, we cannot know what it is.”
“She is in a better place.”
“It’s a test.”
I stare at the floor. I don’t feel like crying.
I feel like screaming.
The death of our children deserves more than over ripe clichés. Yet I understand the impulse. In the face of the unspeakable, what is there left to say?
The man who was away from home when his son died rambles on endlessly, repeating the phrase “Gam zu L’tova.” – “This too is ultimately for the good.”
My heart beats in my chest like a trapped bird. No one objects. They all just sit here and nod. Yes, yes, they are affirming with their silence, the death of my child is tragic, but on a higher level it is acceptable.
“I’m sorry, nothing good has come from Ariel’s death!” My voice is unnaturally loud.
Gam zu L’tova stares at me; he hears the anger in my voice, he locks eyes with me and he flinches because he sees that I could easily strike him.
“Ariel suffered horribly for years and years. There was nothing good about that. Ariel wanted to live. He fought every inch of the way. He did not give up; he did not surrender. He wanted to live. He did not want to die. So there is no way you can convince me that his death, or the death of any of our children is ultimately for the good. The death of these good and holy children is horrible. I resent what you are saying. It’s an insult to me, and also an insult to my son!”
The man answers, he rambles on incoherently about God’s will, and if he says one more word I really might put a fist through his face.
Thankfully, the psychologist intervenes. He calls a halt to the conversation and he wisely ends the session. My hands are shaking so badly that I’ve spilled half the cup of hot tea on my hand. My skin is pink from the burn. I didn’t even feel it happen.
Gam zu L’tova approaches me. He offers his hand. I stare at it for a second. Then I take his hand and shake it. He has lost a son. I have lost a son. The right thing to do is reclaim some measure of kindness, find the safe harbor of dignity. If not for ourselves, at least for our children.
I tell Karen about my latest group meltdown. She offers some not-so-practical advice: “Next time you’ll just have to dress in drag and come to the women’s group. You just don’t have the typically male mentality.”
“Yes, I’m a failure in that department.”
“And thank God for that.” says Karen.
Karen adds: I have spoken to women who have attended secular therapy groups, and the contrast between male and female is universal. It is not restricted to Torah Jews. The secular men don’t have the Torah phrases to quote, but they do cling to facts, or simply do not speak at all. How many women complain that their husbands don’t share their feelings? How many women despair when they want to talk about issues, not for the sake of solving a problem, but simply for the release, the sharing, the acknowledgement? Is there a solution? Will men ever be able to reveal their fears, their weaknesses, their neediness? I don’t know, but I do think the first step is in giving them the security, the acceptance and support that they do not know how to ask for.