As some of the readers may know, our family lost our beloved son, Eric Eliezer Levenson (z”l), a year and a half ago. Because we believe it is important, and may be beneficial to others, to be open about the cause of his death, that he took his own life at the age of 28 after 14 years of suffering from severe depression, a number of people have approached us over this time, seeking insights and guidance on various issues.
As we have just finished a month of introspection and personal communication with G-d, I wanted to share some various thoughts I have had over this past year and a half, both from our own personal experience and in discussions with the other families who have lost their children to suicide. Much of the following relates, as well, to the loss of a child from causes other than suicide, such as illness and accidents.
1) One should never ask a mourner how their loved one took their life! It can’t possibly make a difference in helping ease the mourners’ pain and no one is really entitled to that information.
2) The more important message is: don’t say anything. Let the mourners start the conversations. The point is to comfort the mourners, not entertain them, and you don’t know what will provide comfort to the mourners.
I know it’s hard to sit in silence, but that is the most respectful thing to do and may be the most helpful to the mourner. Let the mourners start the conversation.
3) Please don’t try to make sense of the death of the loved one. It doesn’t make sense. Don’t try to find a “reason” he/she died—there is no good reason. Why would one assume “he/she is in a better place”? What could be better than home with me? Why assume—”at least he/she is not in pain anymore”? Maybe they, we, would have been fine with him being in pain, because at least he’d be alive.
4) Rabbis aside, please don’t tell me God wouldn’t have given me more than I can handle. I would be perfectly willing to handle a lot more, with my loved one alive, or a lot less. Especially, don’t tell me it’s God’s will. This is absolutely not comforting at the time of the most intense pain.
5) Rabbis aside, it is often probably preferable not to raise God at all. While it clearly depends on each individual, many mourners are not on a very friendly or loving basis with Him (or Her), especially at this very intense and numbing time during the shiva process.
6) People sitting shiva, or running the shiva house, should have a notebook or pad for visitors to sign in.
The mourners are too overwhelmed to remember who came (and who didn’t), and it ends up being important to us going forward in how we feel about people (sorry, but it’s the truth). I feel bad that I may have not seen someone who took the time to pay a shiva visit, and worse, that I thought they didn’t come.
7) During shiva, texting us is definitely OK—just don’t expect an answer back. Supportive “thinking of you” texts (but only from real friends) is definitely helpful. But it is not the same as a shiva call.
1) Please do continue to cook for us. It takes a while before we can manage on our own. Do call us if you are running errands and ask if we need something from ShopRite, CVS, the cleaners. It’s not as if life goes back to normal on day seven/eight—hardly. It’s even harder the second week, and the first month.
2) Please don’t offer to come help clean up his/her room. I couldn’t even walk in there. I certainly didn’t want anyone else going in there. And it would have been horrible for someone else to go through his things, deciding what to get rid of. It took me over six months to even be able to open the door to his room. And if we choose to keep it as a “shrine,” well that may be what we need. It’s not morbid; it’s necessary to help us adjust to life without our child.
3) Please do invite us for a Shabbat meal—with one other couple at most, but not if you have kids around. During the initial months of mourning it was incredibly painful to be around such happy families, and you need to understand that and forgive us. But try again in another week or month. Don’t give up on us. It actually took us the full year to be able to begin to feel more comfortable socializing again.
1) For those of us who work outside of the house, Shabbat and holidays can be especially hard. All week long we are distracted by work and our active machines and personal devices. On weekends and holidays there is nothing to do but think. And going to shul is incredibly difficult. One of the best things a friend did was switch his seat and sit next to my husband after our son’s death. It can be very lonely sitting in shul without your child (whether or not the child attended beforehand).
2) Please don’t just stand there and stare with a pitying face, or worse, loudly whisper (about me?) to your friend. It’s really OK not to talk to me or not reach out to me if you have not really spoken with me before, just don’t talk about me in front of me.
3) It can be awkward for people who never spoken to me before to come try to speak to me now. Sometimes it’s people who want to share about their own struggles, and that I definitely appreciate; and its good. But other times, it’s people who just want to comment on how “strong” I seem, how “well” I seem to be handling my loss or how surprised they are that I am still able to smile. These comments are not helpful.
1) Before our child’s death, we were often hiding from the community—mainly to protect our child’s privacy and sometimes our own. Now we sometimes feel like pariahs. Make us feel wanted; keep trying to include us. Don’t treat us like we have some kind of catchy illness.
2) It’s important to keep trying. Not to ask invasive questions, but just to say, “I know you’re having a hard time—is there anything I can do to help?” It may be going for coffee, ice cream or just running some errands for me. I definitely lost people, during the last years, who I thought were my friends, as we were struggling in private with Eric, and I both miss the friendships and I admit I resent the loss.
3) Lastly, when we are going through this struggle, we feel like we are the only ones; and we are not—but our sensitivities are also in overdrive and we may at times think that others have a better life than us.
But if you too are going through struggles, please share that with us; it would be such a help to feel we are not the only people in pain, unfortunate as that may be. And I imagine you feel the same way.
These days, many of our newer and closest friends have become other families who have experienced similar losses.
By Eta Levenson
Eta Levenson is a clinical social worker who lives in West Orange. She was assistant director for the National Jewish Council for Disabilities/Yachad for 16 years, and then an adjunct professor in the Rutgers University School of Social Work for 11 years. Most recently, she has been an active volunteer in the community, specifically with Greater MetroWest ABLE; the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, NJ; the Jewish Family Service of Clifton and Passaic; and the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled.