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August 11th, 2010
08:00 AM ET

My Faith: Navigating the land of grief since my son's death

Editor's Note: Joe Sterling is a News Editor for The CNN Wire.

By Joe Sterling, CNN

Nearly 11 years ago my wife and I entered the world of grief when we lost our teenage son.

This week, we will again confront the never-ending anguish and heartache of this unfathomable death by dutifully participating in religious rites of mourning. And we will spend yet another year grappling with the sorrow just by ourselves.

When the anniversary of the death of our son (pictured) arrives this week–the 2nd of Elul on the Jewish calendar, which is tonight–we'll be headed to our synagogue to recite the Kaddish, the mourner's prayer.

We'll be lighting a candle at home that will burn all day in his memory, and we'll be visiting his gravesite.

A few days later comes the secular anniversary of his death, which falls on August 14. Shabbat happens to be that day and we'll probably end up at services.

Four times a year, a moving memorial prayer service called Yizkor is held in the synagogue, and that's when we recite prayers for the dead, such as the El Male Rachamim, as well as the Kaddish itself. We try to attend these services.

This flurry of activity might give the impression that we're devout, but we're not. While we try to be well read on Judaism and all things Jewish, we've never been regular synagogue-goers.

But the reaction to the horror helped us gain a profound respect for organized religious life.

After the death knocked us numb and we couldn't reason or plan anything, a synagogue committee devoted to helping those who grieve leaped into action, and their labors impressed us greatly.

People who didn't know us personally were there to help us navigate through the shock of death: They prepared our house for the shiva, the Jewish mourning period, and prepared food for us and the scores of the bereaved who showed up at our door.

This gesture affirmed our appreciation and deepened our understanding of the Jewish faithful.

But eventually the mourning period ended and eventually the crowds of friends and relatives who filled our living room disappeared, and it didn't take us long to figure out that the funeral and the shiva inoculate you from the real world of the bereaved.

After we trudged back to our jobs and began slugging it out in the working world, we began to sense the enormity of our loss, and that's when the readjustment process began setting in.

The most profound lesson I took from this ordeal is that no one understands the death of a child unless he or she is their own son, daughter or sibling.

Many people have asked us over the years if we've gotten "closure.” The answer, of course, is no, never, unless you are a sociopath.

We’ve run into people who have had the nerve to tell us that our boy's death was part of God's plan.

We've encountered impatience from some because we continue to grieve, as if we're on the clock and there's a countdown toward normalcy.

But I soon learned not to knock these simple-minded people. I know their lives and thoughts will change when they get a call or a knock on the door with the ultimate bad news.

We've been frank with such insensitive people and have been unapologetic for reacting normally to an abnormal situation. It’s a new world with no rules and you do things you never thought about doing before and see things you never once noticed.

When you go through this kind of ordeal, you cry without warning. When I turn a corner at certain streets, recall something nice or read about another death, tears flow.

I sweat in rage when I encounter a loutish teenager or a negligent parent, and I get very sad when I meet a respectful and wonderful young man or woman reminiscent of our son.

Over the years, it’s been hard to stomach people who complain about trivial issues. I wish serial complainers would just shut up and smell the roses – the flowers in question being their children who are alive and well.

I was in such grief at one time that I read material about and explored ideas of an afterlife for the purpose of "contacting" my son. To me, such a quest is a waste of time but I had to carry it through and get it out of my system.

Over the years, though, I've worked very hard to not wallow in pain, and learned very quickly not to allow myself to be in uncomfortable situations.

For example, if I were watching a film with disturbing imagery, I'd walk out of the theater or click off the pay-per-view. If I were invited to a gathering and something upset me, I would leave.

Nothing will compel us to let the pain get worse. My wife and I haven’t been shy about getting grief counseling, a process that helped us go forward.

We’ve learned that honoring our son's memory with our daily actions and never forgetting him are the most important parts of the coping process.

I'll never forget the day I came early to pick my boy up at football practice, and to my surprise, he was waiting for me.

He told me he and a Muslim kid on the team chose to walk out because a representative from a Christian athletes group was invited to preach to team members. (This was at a public school, by the way.)

So many kids would have caved under such pressure and stuck around.

But our son–who reveled in the diversity that typifies the cities we lived in and had good friends from every religion, ethnic group and social class–knew who he was and was proud of his identity, so he left the gathering.

The only advice I can give a parent who loses a child is to soldier on. You have no choice. As years go by, pleasant thoughts of the departed will replace the nightmares and the pain. The torment will always be there but it will recede.

Here’s a quote from The New York Times obit of Bob Lemon, the Cleveland Indians pitcher and Yankees manager, about the death of his son in an accident. I’ve never stopped thinking about this remark after I first read it.

"I've never looked back and regretted anything. I've had everything in baseball a man could ask for. I've been so fortunate. Outside of my boy getting killed. That really puts it in perspective. So you don't win the pennant. You don't win the World Series. Who gives a damn? Twenty years from now, who'll give a damn?"

"You do the best you can. That's it."

The views expressed in this essay are solely those of Joe Sterling.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Death • Judaism

soundoff (796 Responses)
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    April 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  2. Mary

    I recently lost my 26 year old son to suicide. No clue, out of the blue. Believe me, once that happens in a persons life you have crossed into another world. You realize well meaning people want to comfort you, but the stuff that falls out of their mouths due to nervousness? ignorance? long abandoned beliefs regarding suicide? add another layer of pain to an already horrifying situation. You have to develope a think skin. If you ever want to be a help to a grieving person, just listen and KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT.
    I have been bestowed all sorts of tokens from different religions intended to help me through this time. I have thanked each person for their thoughtfulness. I have however been hammered with all sorts of versions of different peoples religious faiths and takes on why it happened. God's plan, how my tears mean I'm not trusting God/Jesus and on and on and on. I know you all think you are right... but you are messing with my already severely messed up head. Once again KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT.
    It is not about YOU, it is not about your beliefs. Let whoever has lost someone mourn. We are struggling just to BE with this horrible situation. Just be there to listen and if you have to say anything just tell us how sorry you are.

    December 25, 2011 at 12:02 am |
  3. Mary

    Great article. I was widowed years ago, and I lost my only child, my 29 yr old son, two years ago, and – the pain of losing my son is tremendous and forever raw It is impossible to wholly accept. In fact, I just found this article because I was googling randomly, looking for help and relief as I faced another sleepless night. I don't have them as often as I did, but I still have them..

    But I have tried to make the best of it . . . to let good come out of it. It does put things in perspective, so i've gotten better at understand what is important. And I started fostering, which hasn't helped with missing my son, but has helped with missing "being a mom." And certainly it has helped with keeping me busy and focused outside myself.

    I wish you and your wife all the best. You have my sympathies on the loss of your beautiful son.

    December 15, 2011 at 1:06 am |
  4. Thomas

    Joe -my heart goes out to you and your wife. I have struggled with the death of my son for a little over 2 years now. It was as if a huge part of me died that day. I am sure I don't have to tell you that it was all very surreal initially, I had so many dreams in the first few months that were quite different than the usual ones. My son would appear to me at different stages of his life and he would be talking to me but I could not hear anything he was saying. It was a very tough situation as I would long to sleep so I could see him and be with him while part of me was afraid. I would always wake in a sweat so full of grief and sorrow I could hardly stand it. I would look at well meaning people with contempt as one after the other would tell me that "it will get better" or "time heals all wounds". It was obvious to me that these people had absolutely no idea how incomprehensible the feeling of loss is when your child has passed. It occurred to me that all my worst fears as my children grew did not prepare me for that moment, the reality of it. I was never really a very religious person however, at the time of my sons death I was in such a spiritual state that I felt an incredible connection to God. I had spent years searching and seeking an understanding of God that fit in my heart. I studied many different religions and settled on spiritual principles which I recognized as similar if not identical in all of them. I never felt such a closeness with God as I did prior to his death. Afterwards I found myself questioning everything I had ever come to believe in. I was (and at times still am) very lost. As you mentioned....once the funeral was over people that seemed to flock in abundance disappeared. Even long time friends seemed to look at me and treat me differently. The few that stuck around began to pass judgment feeling that I should be over it within their time expectations. I did not know where to turn or what to do. I couldn't seem to see my way out of the intense sorrow that engulfed me. I lost my job which was the one thing that seemed to give me any relief but people didn't seem to know how to act or treat me? It was like I made them uncomfortable just being in their presence? I often felt like I had a disease that people were afraid to catch? Everywhere I turned I would see my boy only to be crushed once again when I realized it wasn't him. I cursed God, screaming at Him in anger! Why would He take my son? How could He take my son? I wallowed in that filth for weeks, months – hell I can still go there often today. I hate the tears...no, the sobs that come out of nowhere triggered by sights, sounds and smells without warning. Despite all this I feel that God has touched me with His ever loving Grace and Mercy, drawing me into His arms to offer some comfort which I still resist. When I am able to see things clearly I can see His works but they fade as I drift back into my sadness. When does it end Joe? How does it feel to be just ok for one day? My efforts to get back to God just feel so forced and fake most times but the funny thing is I want it so badly. Well, I want to thank you for writing this column, it appeared as a reprint in my local paper yesterday and it hit me like a freight train when I read it. I really felt like I was losing my mind until you related how it feels to lose your child. God Bless you and your wife Joe.

    September 16, 2010 at 7:05 pm |
    • Laurie

      Dear Thomas,
      I just want to tell you that I feel exactly like you do, I don't know what will ever help. I lost my 29 year old son, Troy on 12/28/10 to an apparent heart attack. I feel like I will never be over his death, in fact I found your comments by reading the first inquiry of my search of "I can't deal with my son's death" I'm lost, I'm shaken and now my life will never be the same. I loved him so much. I keep praying, just for God to hold me, but I just don't feel him yet, I only feel the pain and sorrow. I will keep praying for us both and those like us to have peace in our remaining days. I could go on, but I will end here. You are not alone.

      March 29, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • AG

      Your story touched me. Your pain is so real. I know this pain, as my child died in 2004. I hope you are healing....

      November 14, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  5. scorpian2k3

    To Joe and his Wife...I offer my sincere condolences...I am offended by all the disrespectful, ignorant, comments posted...aside from the religious topic....The important part of this story is about the LOSS, DEATH of someone's child...I lost my beloved son 5years ago....and YES it is the WORST expierence one can endure......it is unimagineable.....it is unnatural
    Joe...I was very touched by your articule which I read tonite in the Phila daily news paper...whch I read everyday....I felt compelled to write you and say I UNDERSTAND every emotion you described...before , during and after your loss...I thank GOD for my christian FAITH....I try not to judge religion and one's beliefs.....My faith teaches us to LOVE one another regardless....that what I strive to do each and everyday......which isn't always easy when people are so FULL of hate and just mean spirited....mostly I am very successful....because I understand that many suffer from IGNORANCE....and don't know any better.....THAT"S ALL....that's what is wrong with the world today....NO love or compassion !!!!

    Joe I would like too share with you and ALL the parents who have LOSS a child......You NEVER get over it...as many will tell us.....But you will LEARN to LIVE with it......PLEASE find a way to LIVE your life to the fullest.....and whatever your faith ...allow it to assist in substaining you ...I know without a shadow of doubt ...I will see my sweet boy again in eternity we will indeed be reunited.....UNTIL then...... I will honor him by trying to help make a difference in the lives of others....My grief took 4 years to lift up off me...so I could breathe again.......The weight of grief is CRUSHING to your mind body and soul...I am so very THANKFUL to feel peace again....to smile again.....to laugh again...to enjoy friends again....to LIVE again
    My son has a website dedicated to helping and advocating on behalf of people who suffer from mental illness...as he was when he was killed at 23years old.....It was my desire to just save one person's life......so his death would not be in vain....YET 11,000 hits later....It is my belief that we have educated, advocated and saved many more....This will be my LIFE's mission and purpose.....So Joe please reach out to me...let me know you read my story....I'd like to share my son's website with you privately .....
    GOD BLESS and KEEP US ALL

    September 16, 2010 at 12:47 am |
  6. Diana Doyle

    Thank you for this excellent article describing what it is like when you lose someone. My sister, mom and four year old daughter all died within three years of each other, all to different deaths. The grief is always there and changes how you view the world. You are right, other people will never understand until they walk in your shoes. I find now, writing and helping others with grief empowers me so the grief doesn't control me. I also honor thosee I've lost by living life to the fullest. Thank you and I wish you comfort in your memories of your son.
    Diana Doyle http://sunshineinabluecup.blogspot.com/

    August 23, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
  7. Diana Doyle

    Thank you for this excellent article describing what it is like when you lose someone.

    My sister, mom and four year old daughter all died within three years of each other, all to different deaths. The grief is always there and changes how you view the world. You are right, other people will never understand until they walk in your shoes.

    I find now, writing and helping others with grief empowers me so the grief doesn't control me. I also honor thosee I've lost by living life to the fullest. Thank you and I wish you comfort in your memories of your son.

    Diana Doyle http://sunshineinabluecup.blogspot.com/

    August 23, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  8. Linda

    Excellent expression of those who grieve the loss of their child. I lost my son at age 26 years old four years ago on 9/30 and I am forever bereaved. Every day I too honor my son's life and everyday I do the best I can. But you put into words the pain and experience that most people would not understand. Thank you.

    August 19, 2010 at 9:01 pm |
  9. Moishe

    I imagine how hard must be that feeling, but you know, your son did Kiddush Hashem (with his death he santified the name of G-d) and one more time, it shows us that the only King of the Kings is G-d, HE will confort you too. It is also good that after 11 years you still feel the same about the boy. G-d bless you both and gives you courage to go on!

    August 19, 2010 at 5:16 pm |
  10. Jillian

    It was extremely rude for anyone to walk out of a place where someone is speaking about their faith. If you aren't respectful enough to listen to them why expect anyone to listen to you? I also think it is disrespectful to speak of your son without giving him a name. It makes him seem less than worthy to be acknowledged. Every person's name matters as does every persons faith.

    August 19, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
    • Jeff

      So narrow minded of you, Jillian. An explanation is surely wasted on you.

      October 30, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  11. Noble9

    One piece of advice: as bad as things get, never make the assumption that they can't get worse. I made that mistake when my wife and I were grieving for our daughter. The problems I created at my lowest point, before I got help, will last a lifetime.

    August 17, 2010 at 11:46 pm |
  12. Tzvi Klugerman

    Dear Mr. Sterling,
    Your words are very true. Having our eldet teenage son die after being hit by a car, really makes you look at the world differently. Since we can only control how we react to events and people, I am impressed by your resolve and steadfast maintenance of your tradition.
    It is a terriible club we belong to, one we do not want to join, but hearing your experiences and of the other respondants makes me realize that regretfully, it is more commonplace than I would like to admit.

    Keep your strength and your faith.

    August 16, 2010 at 1:56 pm |
  13. CresentMoon

    How disgusting people can be. A man comes to share the grief of losing his son, and walks into a den of wolves, spewing thier foam.
    Not only do they not have a brain, they don't have a heart either. Good thing for some of them they are athiest, its the best excuse for avoiding that which they fear! No one to answer to for thier actions. Looks like the jokes on them.

    August 13, 2010 at 10:27 pm |
  14. Leslie

    Joe,
    My beautiful son died 7 years ago unexpectedly. I found him and I have suffered those last moments along with my tremendous grief and sorrow since. I am so sorry for the loss of your son... time just goes by doesn't it... the depth of my sadness is deep and wide. The times when I am busy working give me a reprieve from my great sadness, I am grateful for those hours. I don't know, loosing a child is never explainable. It is the worst kind of loss. "Hazak- Hazak".. I give you my strength to help you with yours.

    August 13, 2010 at 10:06 pm |
  15. Eitan

    I've never understood the issue that many Jews have with Jesus. They seem to have such a misunderstanding about him or a chip on their shoulder that they completely miss the point, which is his TEACHINGS, not the man himself. He seems to strike a deep chord though, which indicates to me that they have some deep issues that they pin on Jesus, rather than deal with them. At the core of what Jesus taught was to sacrifice one's ego and love one another unconditionally, but instead of understanding this, they seem to be "stuck" by some sort of mental block or something and get indignant, as if embracing his teachings would be to sacrifice their very identity, when nothing could be further from the truth. It's a problem others don't seem to have. Me thinks thou dost protest too much. Don't get so caught up in the man that you miss the teachings, which is the whole point!

    August 13, 2010 at 9:45 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.