On the death of a child

As I write, news reporters, television, print, and electronic, are trying to find words for which there is no language. They fill our culture with the easy and the superficial. Words like: 'healing,' 'cope,' 'grieving process,' 'get past this,' 'come out OK,' 'move on,' roll off the tongue. Glibness is everywhere. Judaism teaches that when there is nothing to say we should say nothing.  We moderns get uncomfortable in silence.  We rush to fill it with the sound of our voices. We cannot imagine a world without the noise and words of connectivity. Sometimes only silence gives voice to what has happened.

In the encounter with the death of a child Aaron is our model. When two of his sons died we read "And Aaron was silent". When David lost Absalom, the son who rebelled against him, we read:

The king was shaken. He went up to the upper chamber of the gateway and wept, moaning these words as he went, "My son Absalom! O my son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!" (2Sa 19:1 TNK)

A bereaved parent would substitute their death for the death of the child.  This depth of despair is not often found in the more regular and natural deaths that are part of life.  Many languages have words for people who have lost certain relatives. A young person who loses parents becomes an orphan.  Bereaved spouses become widows and widowers. There are certain deaths that so profoundly alter the very nature of the bereaved that a specialized word is needed to express this new state of being.  Hebrew is a wise language.  It is one of the few languages that has a word to designate the person whose child has died.

That word is 'shakul' and in the feminine, 'shakula.' This Hebrew word appropriately enough means a reversal of the natural order. It is the way of the world that children shall bury old parents. The reverse is chaos. It is the undoing of the natural order for the parent, creator of life to witness the death of the life created. These Hebrew words are so unique that the only way to translate it is with a phrase, 'one who has lost a child'. There is no parallel in English.

Shabbat morning I had a conversation in Shul with a wise and learned pediatrician Dr. Edith Chernoff who treats very sick babies and little children.  Because she knows, and cares for parents who have lost children, I sought wisdom from her.  She said to me, "For the rest of their lives these parents will live in hell.  In the morning they sent a healthy, happy child off to school who came home lifeless."

This is why the TaNaKh, the Hebrew Bible has a word for such a person.  The fathers of the murdered children of Newtown, Connecticut are forever shakul and the mothers are forever  shakula

There are no words, no ideas, or poetry for the shakul and the shakula. We can offer only what the Halacha in its eternal wisdom provides. We can be with them. 

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