Coping with the Death of an Infant

(This post began life as a comment on an article on Torah Musings, ” When a Baby Dies” by Rabbi Gil Student.)

What I held on to through the experience had at least two parts.

The first is the impossibility of believing that Chazal were trying to explain tragedy. They studied the book of Iyov, after all, they know the book’s ultimate non-answer, typified by (38:4) “אֵיפֹ֣ה הָ֭יִיתָ בְּיָסְדִי־אָ֑רֶץ הַ֝גֵּ֗ד אִם־יָדַ֥עְתָּ בִינָֽה׃ – Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you know how to reason!”

So the first thing I worked with was that Chazal were looking for ways to find meaning in the experience, not to explain its causes. To paraphrase the Rav’s position in Qol Dodi Dofeiq, any attempt to explain tragedy will be either emotionally cold or intellectually vacuous — and usually both.

The second is based on a lesson about Divine Justice the Rav made when teaching how we hope to help someone else’s recovery by making a “Mi sheBeirakh” for them in shul.

When someone is imprisoned for their crime, many other people are punished. His wife loses his companionship and the income he provided. His children lose access to his parenting and the reassurance of his love. All of his family experiences shame and embarrassment. His neighbors lose whatever help he provided. Etc… But a court doesn’t, and can’t, factor all that in when making a decision.

Divine Justice isn’t like that. Everyone touched by an event is getting exactly what their life required. And so, this sick person’s life may require their being sick, but now the community is involved. And now the decision of whether they stay sick or recover depends on whether the community deserves that someone they care for is suffering.

Similarly we have a book of Iyov. So we have something about Iyov’s struggles to make sense of his experiences. We do not have a book of Iyov’s Wife, to know anything about Divine Justice and her experiences. (Beyond what we can generalize from the book of Iyov to any suffering.) Or a book for each of Iyov’s cihldren, to explore Hashem’s calculations behind why his 3rd child (for example) had to go through the experience of a short life that had such a painful ending.

Similarly, Chazal give me suggestions with which to start the search for why I had to live through the experience of Kayli’s death. After all, it would be cruel, as they put it, to experience tragedy and that sense of “everything is different now”, and not leverage that emotion to motivate personal growth.

But my wife experienced the event differently than I did. The meaning she could find in the tragedy is different than the one I would. And our children, who at the time were quite little, had quite a different experience — but one that had to impact them deeply, given their formative ages.

Of course the question of why Kayli herself only was on this earth from Sukkos to a little after Chanukah is an entirely different question. Not even sure how to ask that question; the only first-hand experience of that death is the child themself. Everyone else goes through the death of a friend’s child, a neighbor’s child, a child they heard about, or whatever. And those are different questions.

A gemara discussing finding meaning as a parent who lost a child isn’t discussing the meaning one may find in the death of a child.

(Speaking of “everything is different now”, this Rabbi Studen’t article appeared on Elul 23, on the 18th yahrzeit of those who were murdered in the 9/11 attacks. It would have seemed odd to reply on this date without even mentioning the general problem of explaining tragedy and what happens when people rush in to explain national events. And how important and constructive it could be if we instead looked for proper responses, way of finding meaning.)

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