From the day we’re born to the day we die, life takes us through transition after transition. Some are easily navigated, others are not. Like surfers on the ocean, we do our best to ride the waves. We would all prefer to pass up on life’s big waves. Yet sometimes they find us anyway.
Of all of life’s major transitions, significant losses affect us the most. Whether it be divorce, job loss or a life challenge as jarring as the death of a child, life-altering transitions force us to recalibrate our perception of God’s world, our place in it and how to carry on. Walking through the unknown without a compass is bewildering, and at times, devastating. Yet there are those who have managed to rise above their ordeals. They grappled with themselves and sometimes with their faith, prevailing over pain and suffering and becoming transformed in the process.
“The second I knew he was gone, I turned to Hashem,” says Ella, Michoel’s mother. “I said, ‘I won’t be able to survive this unless You carry me and my family through this. Give me the strength of iron to be the wife and mother I have to be now.’ I had no idea what I was facing.”
Rather than deal with her own anguish, she chose to focus on keeping the family atmosphere as normal as possible. “It was way too painful to deal with head on,” she says. “I tried to make everyone feel it was just something in life that people go through, that siblings die.” She encouraged the family to continue talking about Michoel, to speak about him, to ensure they were keeping his presence alive.
Carrying on with life remained her top priority, as was maintaining her faith. “The transition has to be a spiritual one,” says Adler, who lives in Brooklyn. “If it isn’t, you could fall back into a very bad place.”
Despite the terrible blow, the Adlers made a point to go to bar mitzvah celebrations of Michoel’s classmates to wish them mazal tov. Adler saw how others who had lost children were uplifted by starting charities in their child’s name. She decided to follow suit. She launched Matnas Michoel, a tzedakah project that provides needy bar mitzvah boys with a pair of tefillin.
On a flight to Israel, shortly before her son’s first yahrtzeit, she approached a group of young secular Israelis who were mocking Chareidim and gently reproached them. An irreligious Israeli overheard the exchange. “You’re obviously Orthodox,” he said to her. He asked her how many children she had. She burst into tears as she told him her story.
Visibly moved, he said he wanted to do something to help. Adler asked if he would put on tefillin the day of her son’s yahrtzeit. She gave him the date and her son’s name. The young man turned pale. “My name is also Michoel ben Yaakov!” he said.
“That’s when I knew that helping needy families pay for their sons’ tefillin was the right path,” says Adler. “These are the things that helped me transition to living again.”
Adler stresses that support from family and friends was vital to the healing process. Before Michoel’s first yahrtzeit, a group of friends secretly made arrangements for the Adlers to travel to Eretz Yisrael to daven. They spoke with Adler’s husband’s boss to ensure he could get time off. They booked tickets and hotel reservations and then informed the couple of the trip. Such acts of chesed from friends and the community helped the couple enormously. But Adler says that even the simple “I’m-thinking-of-you” phone messages helped get her through some of the bad days.
Six years after her son’s death, she decided it was time to face her pain. She joined a support group for parents who had lost children. It’s not a club any parent wants to join, but the bond of grief ran deep and strong. Nowadays, Adler pays shivah visits to parents who have lost children, her very presence demonstrating that people suffering such a loss can eventually come to terms with their pain.
One would imagine that it saddens her to watch her son’s former classmates, now twenty-one, marry and start families. She manages by keeping his presence palpable. A large photo of Michoel hangs prominently on her dining room wall. “He’s with me all the time,” she says. “My grandchildren speak about him as if they knew him. They call him ‘Michoel from the Wall.’ I say, “Right Michoel from the Wall was a very good juggler? Right his favorite ice cream was . . . Right he finished this mesechta.’
“To forget all his antics and adorable ways would have [left] . . . a big gaping hole for me. When people don’t keep the child’s memory alive, the pain is a lot worse and they regret it. He is still very much part of our family. I want people to know that it’s doable.”
She admits that “deep down” not every parent transitions from the loss completely.
“You could fall; we all do. I take solace in the memories before it happened. I don’t let it hurt me; I let it help me. He came down to fulfill those thirteen years. It’s very difficult [to overcome the pain], but it wouldn’t be a nisayon [spiritual test] otherwise.”
Parents don’t expect to outlive their children. It defies life’s natural order.
“Because it’s an unnatural loss, there’s no intellectual understanding,” says Rabbi Dr. David Fox, a well-known forensic and clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. “Very often parents struggle with the final stages of grief, acceptance and resolution. It can haunt them for decades.”
After a loved one’s death, people come to realize the extent to which the departed affected the lives of others. Children are no exception. In fact, this aspect of the transition can bring parents even closer to the child they lost.
“The truth is I didn’t really know my son,” says Rabbi Moshe Goldberg*, a British expatriate living in Brooklyn. His nineteen-year-old son, Chaim Tzvi*, died in a car crash. “Do we really know our children?”
When friends and classmates came to comfort the family with personal accounts of Chaim Tzvi’s myriad acts of kindness, Rabbi Goldberg began to fully grasp the essence of his son—how much he achieved, who he had become.
Time passed and life went on; he and his wife assumed the children were adjusting to the loss. Then it occurred to him that their silence didn’t necessarily indicate tranquility. He knew the consequences of suppressing feelings.
Born to two Holocaust survivors, Rabbi Goldberg had learned to keep his emotional life under lock and key. Unfortunately, he paid a price for this, and contracted an ulcer at the age of eleven, England’s youngest case on record.
His son’s death loosened Rabbi Goldberg’s grip on his inner life. “I’ve changed,” he says. “I cry easily now. I’m much softer. I look carefully [at] each child and listen completely.”
The Torn Ketubah
Not all transitions hit us from behind. Sometimes we initiate life’s tidal waves. But even if someone chooses to leave a stressful situation—as in the case of divorce—welcomed change is still change. It necessitates entering the world of the unknown. And that’s scary.
Rabbi Dr. Fox, who also serves as the rav of the Hashkama Minyan at the Young Israel of Hancock Park in LA as well as a dayan, sees many divorces in his line of work. For a lot of people, he says, the dissolution of a marriage can create a crisis that could work its way into trauma. Like the death of a loved one, divorce often triggers not only feelings of grief over the loss, but also a sense of failure.
“They think, ‘I’m an oddity, people won’t know what to say to me. I’ll be the fifth wheel,’ explains Rabbi Fox. “There’s worry about public shame, and that they will no longer be included. And what will their children say to their friends at school? It’s a reframing of one’s personal identity. Who am I now? Can I accept myself without condemnation? Sadly, the fault lines from a broken marriage can endure for years to come.”
Determined to avoid any messy repercussions, Chana Gilman and her husband decided on an elegant exit, keeping the pain and disappointments to themselves. Nonetheless, with divorce comes the inevitable aftershocks.
“I’m just starting to get back out there,” says Gilman, six years after the breakup of her twenty-year marriage. “I went off the grid the last few years. When I began to own my part in his unhappiness, that’s when my healing began. It’s never one person’s fault.”
She says the first step in the transition from wife to single mother was getting over her fear of falling into a deep malaise, one she’d never come out of. From the start, she sought support in her close friends. One friend accompanied her to the beit din for the get process, another took her out to dinner afterward and slept over; another treated her to lunch the next day.
Part of her self-care regimen involved building emotional boundaries. She actually role-played with a friend so that she would be prepared for the inevitable onslaught of intrusive questions.
“People are well-meaning, but they can be extremely insensitive,” she says. “They would ask me, ‘Do you think you guys will remain friends? Is he paying child support? How are the kids feeling about all this?’ They’re normal questions, but none of their business. My rote answer, which is a shocker to most, is ‘Oh I don’t talk about that.’ Believe me; it takes courage. You have to create a community that speaks your language, knows your pain, and doesn’t judge you.”
Gilman pursued the guidance of women who not only survived the initial agony of divorce, but grew in the process. A few weeks after she received her get, she made plans to go to an upcoming wedding she thought she “had to attend.” After all, that’s what everyone was telling her; she needed to get out and be with people. She boarded her friend’s van, and waited for the rest of the passengers to arrive for the ride to the wedding. Suddenly she felt her eyes welling up; she didn’t want to go. She reached for her cell phone and dialed a friend who had been divorced for a number of years.
“She told me to get out of the van,” says Gilman, “and stayed on the phone until I got home. You can’t force the timeline; you have to trust yourself.” Another friend, seasoned in the divorce transition, likened the first week after the split to the shivah phase and the first month to the sheloshim. “There comes the day you want to get dressed and live life again,” says Gilman. She gave herself one year.
In an effort to repair the diminished self-esteem that frequently accompanies divorce, Gilman participated in myriad personal-development programs. She views this stage of her transition as a crucial time of self-investment, and has since gone on to coach other women.
“I learned we live in our heads. If I wake up and say, ‘Oh no, another day; I’m so sick of doing this alone. This is so hard,’ then it will be [hard],” says Gilman. “I wake up now and say ‘I love my life.’ Do I wish I were married? Of course I do. Am I happy in my life? Absolutely.”
Despite the increased incidences of divorce within the Orthodox Jewish community, many still feel a profound sense of shame.
“Setting a goal to have a family is something that is deeply ingrained in us,” says Edelman. “I knew the relationship with my [now] ex-wife was deteriorating, but I lived with the situation anyway. I hoped it would get better. I never thought that divorce was inevitable until I actually moved out.”
When he left, he felt at once liberated and lonely. He remembers a friend asking him when he would be vacationing in Florida that winter. Edelman answered, whenever he wanted and for as long as he wanted. He realized he no longer had to answer to anyone about his comings and goings.
Although he felt free of the stresses of a rocky marriage, it pained him to come home to an empty apartment each night. Against his therapist’s advice, he asked his ex-wife if she would consider reconciling. She turned down the offer.
Gnawing questions filled his head. How are my Shabbatot going to look now? Will I stay single? Will I remarry? What kind of woman should I look for?
Painful life transitions can also test an individual’s relationship with Hashem. Difficulties could compel one to turn to God or, sometimes, away from Him.
“No one should look down on someone who has faith questions after a traumatic loss,” says Rabbi Fox. “The one struggling shouldn’t feel guilty either.” He points to a verse in Yeshayahu that says: “Peace to those who are near; peace to those who are far from Me. I will heal them.”
“The Navi acknowledges that in times of great strife, one could feel closer to or estranged from God, but he has to go through this process.”
In Edelman’s case, despite his bouts with loneliness, he began to feel more at peace with himself and he strengthened himself spiritually.
“When you’re unhappy, you don’t daven well, you don’t learn well, and the yamim tovim aren’t joyful,” he says. “When you’re more in harmony with yourself, all that improves.”
My Job/My Self
Although losing one’s livelihood obviously can’t compare to the agony of losing a child or the pain following the breakup of a marriage, it’s a transition that sets off multiple losses. The unemployed struggle with diminished self-esteem, lack of daily structure and a missing sense of purpose. Work often influences how we view ourselves, and how others view us.
Up until his fifties, Gavriel Cohen* had spent his career working his way up the corporate ladder as a financial analyst. He owned a spacious home, his children attended yeshivah day school and the family rarely worried about expenses. Then his finances took an abrupt U-turn. He lost his job.
Initially he took it well. He left the position with a sizable severance package and figured he had time to search for his next opportunity. His years of experience would surely render him a top candidate. But the calls didn’t come. He realized the transition would not be as easy as expected. But he hung onto a sense of emunah, the belief that there was a bigger plan, and that it would all end well.
Cohen did all the right things; he polished his resume, networked and searched online—but he got no responses.
“[Failing to get a job] was definitely age-related,” he says. “Interviews where I really should have gotten my foot in the door, I didn’t. I had the experience they were looking for but they wouldn’t return my calls.”
The severance pay was quickly coming to an end.
Children do not take well to changing a lifestyle they have grown accustomed to. This is especially true for teenagers, who tend to be overly concerned about what their friends will think. The clothing stores Cohen’s children used to frequent were now beyond their means. The family had to start thinking about money in a new way.
“It’s a tremendous shift for everyone,” says Dr. Aviva Biberfeld, a clinical psychologist in Brooklyn. “I have had cases where parents were advised to make arrangements with a store owner to allow them to shop before the store actually opens—so that they wouldn’t be seen shopping in a lower-end store. The pressure to keep up a pretense takes a tremendous toll.”
Close friends and family did their best to reassure Cohen that it was only a matter of time before he would land a position. He wasn’t so sure, but he continued saying Tehillim, working on maintaining a positive outlook and believing it would all work out.
He tried his hand at odd jobs when he could find them, but felt no sense of accomplishment or stability.
Heading for financial ruin, the family was enormously relieved when Cohen finally landed a job. A former colleague suggested him for a position and kept after the contact, moving things along at every opportunity.
“This was a very busy guy, yet he took the time and did this. He kept after everyone, that they shouldn’t forget me, [reminding them] that I was looking for work,” says Cohen. “I learned how you could really change someone’s life if you make the effort.
After nine months at his new position, Cohen admits to a residual fear of falling back into joblessness. But he feels the experience changed him for the better. “I wake up every single day with a feeling of gratitude, appreciative for what I have.”
Emunah Boot Camp
Big losses can shake a person to the core. He perceives that God has deserted him or that His hand is undeniably close. Perhaps too close for comfort.
“A lot of people say they believe in Hashem, but their belief has never been put to the test,” says Gedalya Engel, fifty-five, who was laid off and faced many months of joblessness.
He likened his year of pounding the pavement as “living out of a suitcase,” waiting for life to move on.
“People would ask me how I was. I’d put on a brave face, but felt more desperate as time went on,” he says. “It’s a painful discovery; you went to yeshivah and heard the shmuzen [lectures]. You fancied yourself to be a maimon [believer], and then something happens and you’re second-guessing God. If I really believe in Hashem, why can’t I sleep at night?”
Around the time his severance package ran out, he took a job as a driving instructor, something he had never done before.
“I used to meet people who have a business and I would tell them, I know you daven a good Shemoneh Esrei, but you never know what your day is going to bring. I used to get a regular paycheck. I would say to Hashem, ‘I’m good for now. If I have a problem, I’ll be in touch.’ I think Hashem got tired of my joke.”
As a driving instructor, Engel gets paid according to the number of lessons he gives. He has busy days and unproductive ones. But he feels prepared; he’s already been to emunah boot camp.
“I talk to Hashem constantly now,” he says. “I guess [my being unemployed] was a berachah. I gave someone a driving lesson the other day who, because of a bad accident, was terrified of driving. After the lesson she told me, ‘My fear of driving is gone!’ It’s those days that I say baruch Hashem, I’m making a parnassah and helping people. I had to go through that year of seeming exile, but He hasn’t forgotten about me.”
Bayla Sheva Brenner is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Jewish Action. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.