Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What do I say to my daughter?

What Do I Say to My Daughter?

The human mind is an amazing organ. It works at speeds we cannot even measure, yet leaves us feeling as if we are in total control. When the phone rang Tuesday at about 1 PM, and Elizabeth beeped through on the intercom to say that it was Emily, I had a second, maybe 2, to react between hearing the words, uttering “Thanks,” and clicking the button to talk to my 17 year old daughter.

In that second or two, like a classic scene from an old Marx Brothers’ film, I had done the full inventory. I had seen her leave the house to go student teach. If something had happened in that mile and half to her or the car, I would already have known before I had left the house to come into the office. So she was at school, where she should be working with her second graders, not calling me. Something must be wrong. Or maybe not – maybe they are in a special, and she has a minute or two, and she forgot to tell me something, or something just came up.

By the time I heard her voice, I was already regaining my sense of calm. As soon as I heard her, I no longer was. I could hear her pain and confusion. The words, clearly spoken, made no sense, as much as I understood exactly what she had said. “Where are you?” I asked. “Still at school,” she replied, “But about to head home.” “Would you rather come here?” I asked. “Yes, daddy,” she cried.

Even as I fretted about whether she was in any condition to drive, my training as a Rabbi kicked in. I knew I had roughly 12 minutes. Not much time. And much to do. I needed to confirm that the news that had started this whole scene in motion was, in fact, true, even though I knew that it must be, for not even a teenager could make something like this up as a joke. I needed to figure out who I could safely call to get that confirmation, and whatever other information was available to try to make sense of the unimaginable. And I needed to hold it together, at least for a few more minutes, because the worst was still to come.

The first three phone calls all went to voice mail. I rechecked my e-mails and Facebook, looking for that telltale first sign of the impending deluge. Still nothing there. In desperation, I called the Camp Harlam office, not at all sure that they would know, but knowing that if they hadn’t heard anything, I would be able to get the next number I needed to call from them.

I knew the person who answered the phone. I could have asked her. But I needed one of the stalwarts – someone to whom I could risk saying the unthinkable without fear of losing face. I had just connected to Howard when I heard the doorbell. I realized that Emily would not hear the confirmation she was dreading from me, but rather with me.

And so it was that as Emily walked into my office, we both heard Howard say, “Sorry to say, it is true.” With that, Emily collapsed on my couch and broke down. I attempted to confront the emotions I could no longer control while asking the needed follow-up questions, that sadly brought no useful information, before hanging up and returning to Daddy mode.

Yesterday was the day that every parent fears. It was the day my daughter came face-to-face with life, when one of her close friends died. Sure we had been through two grandmothers and two great-grandmothers, even in an unfortunately compressed time period that cast a shadow on Emily’s Bat Mitzvah celebration, still. Sure, we had been through my surgery in that same period. Serious, to be sure, but thankfully, I am still around for moments like this. And yes, I have buried teens and twenty-somethings, and somehow found the words to say and the ways to say them and keep my own emotions in check.

But none of that can possibly prepare you for having to console your own child while she is mourning the death of someone as close as Mitch was to her. Not when, as was the case here, I knew the kid. I liked the kid. I respected the kid. And I like and respect his parents, too. What must they be going through at this moment?

That thought cleared my self-indulgence for a second. How dare I whine at this moment – I can hug my daughter, and try to comfort her, and wipe her tears away, and tell her I love her. Rex and Rachel no longer can. The only thing that would prevent them from trading positions with me at this moment is the knowledge of what they would be subjecting me to – and even that probably wouldn’t stop them, through no weakness of their own!

I held her close to me, and encouraged her to let it all out. I think, I hope, I told her I loved her at that moment – I know I did several more times throughout the day (and I can only hope she heard it, and allowed it to sink into her through the pain and questioning).

And I admitted the truth to her – that I had no idea what to say to her in this moment of pain and grief. It wasn’t until much later in the day that I even stopped and wondered if she might have heard in those words not the permission for her to be without words that I had intended, but rather some weakness or shortcoming in her father that kept him from being all that she needed in her hour of need. After all, Daddy – you are a Rabbi. You are supposed to get this death stuff. And we all know you have words for EVERY occasion!

And the truth is, I had many words. Just none that would help. None that yet made sense. A 17 year old boy had died. Not in a car accident on slick roads. Not from anything suspicious looking – not this kid. Mitch was a kid who if, God forbid, he had been found dead next to an empty bottle of wine, and an empty pill container, your first reaction would have been “Who else has been here, and left these bottles!” Not that either of those circumstances would have lessened the pain any – now or later.

But, at least, they would have provided a sense of a familiar paradigm, something to grasp onto in this moment of asking WHY? in the face of the unimaginable. Whenever a parent has to bury and mourn a child, the sense of a break in what we consider to be the natural order of life adds profoundly to the sadness. At least one of the more familiar scenarios would have given back at least (at most?) a small corner of that order.

But, instead, Mitch’s parents, two Rabbis, found their good kid, who was loved by everyone who knew him, that morning, and the medical folks could not revive him. No obvious cause. No clear sense that something was out of the ordinary. One minute, he was chatting online with Emily and some other friends. The next, he was going to sleep, never fully to wake up again!

How could I, the father of a grieving teenage daughter, hope to help my child deal with what she would later call, “ for real, the worst thing I have ever had to deal with”? How could I answer her questions, that she could not even bring herself to frame yet, when I could not answer them for myself? How could I help her to help her boyfriend, Mitch’s best friend, as he was first hearing the news, and then trying to make sense of it himself? Where could I find the strength to reassure her that it will be okay, when I was not yet convinced myself? Dealing with our own mortality leads to this kind of challenge!

I need to find these answers for myself. I need to be able to help her find them for herself. Only THEN can I help her to help her friends. Only then can I be the Rabbi that these kids expect me to be, and will need me to be tomorrow at the funeral. Only then can I help my friends deal with the death of their son. No one ever said being a Rabbi would be easy. No one ever said life was easy. Today, at least, it still is not!


  1. this is every parent's nightmare - thanks for expressing this sense of helplessness for all of us. and may G-d give Mitch's parents, and the rest of us, the strength to get through this tragedy with some positive result to show for it.

  2. Steve, Your love and anguish is what makes you a good rabbi. You will always be my favorite rabbi.