The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 49

She was not yet three-and-a-half years-old when her grandfather died, but death was still beyond her imagination. On the other hand, she understood quite starkly, with dismayed frustration, that her father was abruptly leaving home again… “I have to go help Dedushka Shurik move far, far away,” he explained too gently. “I’ll come back in just one week; and I’ll call you every day from America.”

Abba’chka and Mama’chka were both restrained, but the little girl sensed that something was amiss. The atmosphere in their apartment was thick with something heavy and foreign to her, and her parent’s tones sounded oddly muffled by the laden air around them. A disagreeable, viscous surreality was filling up the room, and it was somehow related to her Dedushka in America. She could grasp this much.

Moved to express herself, even as Abba’chka stood waiting to leave with his large, red and black suitcase, the little girl declared that she would draw some pictures for her Dedushka. Scribbling furiously with her blue marker on sheet after sheet of paper, with a fierce intensity that was rather unlike her, the girl produced a veritable stack of doodles “to give to Dedushka Shurik.” (She knew that blue was his favorite color.)

It all happened much too quickly for me.

* * *

In those few hours before I left for the airport, in those disintegrating moments, the euphemism of “moving to a faraway place” came to us fairly quickly. We were dazed, stunned, unsteady; our overriding instinct was to protect our [not a] baby.

She’s a sensitive child and has always suffered through our absences whenever one of us has traveled abroad without her; hence we’ve taken to preparing her for our departures well ahead of time. My Papa’s death came without warning, however.

Worse, I had been home for merely ten days after a week-long absence (blog #40), and my daughter had just come to rely upon the dependability of my presence again… days before I abruptly had to fly off again.

At three-and-a-half-years-old, she was already trilingual (she speaks English with me, Russian with her mother, and Hebrew outside the home), but for all of her natural eloquence she was barely out of toddlerhood and only beginning to engage our Shabbat guests with her earnest, all too serious-sounding queries at the table. Most of what she could express with accuracy was a repetition of conversations she had overheard.

Even after my return from the shiva, I found it difficult to determine the extent to which our child was capable of comprehending and processing the horror of what had transpired, due to her perfectly age-appropriate limitations. Certainly, I knew she hadn’t fully recovered from my extended, unexpected absence, for she continued to cry every evening when I would leave to recite kaddish for Papa (blog #3).

My wife and I were particularly wary due, in part, to my wife’s own childhood. At three-years-old, she had also lost her loving grandfather and, in the aftermath, developed deep anxiety about the possibility of herself or her loved ones likewise “disappearing” forever. The matter-of-fact explanation she’d received as a child had terrified her.

* * *

In the course of my research on Jewish mourning and kaddish, I happened upon this article by Rabbi Avram Mlotek on his five-year-old daughter’s confrontation with death: ‘My 5-Year-Old Confronts Death’.

Rabbi Mlotek ends the piece like so:

Ecclesiastes offers, ‘There is a time for everything.’

But for children, time bears no hold on reality.

It’s Sukkot eve and we put Ravi to bed, telling her if she goes to sleep nicely I’ll bring her to the sukkah later, to sleep on a blow-up mattress.

‘How long will you be?’ she asks. ‘An hour? A minute? A second?’

I smile because she doesn’t grasp the difference between these markers and that, for now, is truly wonderful.

This scene with little Revaya and her father is so true to life; and I find myself smiling at Mlotek’s depiction because my own daughter, now four-and-a-half-years-old, confuses days with weeks and seconds with minutes (although she knows the twelve months and four seasons in three languages) (yes, I’m boasting).

I read the article again, imagining my daughter asking all of the same questions that Ravi did: Is Dedushka Shurik really in the box? How did he get there? Are his white clothes comfortable? When do the kids get to shovel dirt upon the grave?

This whole scenario is so very plausible to me, so very, very plausible, but then it hits me: she’s not three-and-a-half any more.

My [not a] baby has always been articulate for her age, but our conversations today, one year after Papa died, are incomparably more substantive than they once were. My year of mourning coincided almost exactly with her first year of preschool, and her ability to express herself has exploded since last September. It was only two months ago that she squeezed my hand on our way to shul one Shabbat and contemplatively tested her developing understanding with me: “Is it right that my grandfather died?”

I will remember this particular year of my daughter’s life forever.

* * *

Papa used to say that he couldn’t cry anymore; that he hadn’t cried for more years than he could remember; that tears simply wouldn’t come. Me? I cry for my father – but only in the absence of my nearly four-year-old daughter.

– Me, blog #27

In mid-January I wrote the above, as I continued to struggle with how to communicate our tremendous loss to our daughter. Several weeks prior, she had finally asked me what the “faraway place” that Dedushka Shurik had left us for is called (blog #23), and I had answered her that nobody really knows. Family, friends and acquaintances had all been asking me: why don’t you just explain it to her?

But I was scared; I didn’t know if she could handle it.

Then, in early March, my dear friend Yael who has supported many terminally ill patients and their families as a chaplain drew my attention to an NPR article: ‘The Dog Isn’t Sleeping: How To Talk With Children About Death’.

* * *

The article mentions a Mr. William Lee (1908-1982) who died of a heart attack at 74 years of age, but American children knew him by the name Mr. Hooper, and this is how he was referred to by the author.

Mr. Hooper had been a special friend to Big Bird, and the unexpected death of the actor who played him on Sesame Street inspired its producers to create an educational episode about death: Episode #1839. The executive producer would go on to explain that the Sesame Street team had followed their instincts to “deal with it head-on,” as reported in the New York Times on Aug. 31, 1983.

The clip above this post is powerfully poignant. The cast’s tears for their departed friend were all genuine. But… wait: what age is Big Bird meant to represent? 

From Wikipedia:

‘Although all the Sesame Street Muppet characters are technically ageless, Big Bird is psychologically written to represent a six-year-old.’

* * *

I was impressed by the substance and thrust of the NPR article, but its six takeaway principles weren’t all entirely appropriate for my daughter at a tender three-and-a-half, specifically:

  • The article first suggests that parents should “be honest and concrete” with their children. The author writes: “parents only complicate matters when, instead of being concrete, they resort to euphemisms.” While I would agree that this may be something to aspire towards, I have no regrets about telling my little daughter that her grandfather had “moved far, far away” when he died.
  • The fourth principle is: “Grown-ups, it’s OK to cry.” Sure, ideally our children would be capable of comprehending why their parents are crying, but what if they’re not? What if they’re just old enough to sense our hurt, absorb it and become overwhelmed with emotion that they have no capacity to describe? What if they’re not able to ask the questions necessary to better understand? What if they’re just too young?

For all of its truly helpful guidelines, the article’s one failure is its lack of context: What ages is this advice suitable for?

* * *

I am not the only one to have gone through a process this year, as my wife pointed out to me at Shabbat dinner last week. Our daughter had a deep attachment to her Dedushka, for he had spent an entire month or more nannying her every single year since her birth (blog #22).

My daughter awoke two days before he died, thinking that Dedushka Shurik was with her in the apartment. My wife explained that it was a dream, and she tried calling my father in America so that our little girl could speak with her grandfather, but he had already gone to bed. Learning of this, my father glowed with love and pride for what turned out be his final two days in this world, telling everybody that he spoke with that his granddaughter had dreamed of him.

– Me, blog #15

Looking back, I feel that we did our best, gradually introducing concepts to our [not a] baby gradually, as she developed from a three-and-a-half-year-old into a four-and-a-half-year-old little girl.

We deliberately did not avoid speaking about Papa’s death to others in her presence, and I explained to her that I was reciting kaddish at shul for Papa as soon as she inquired about it (blog #22):

I’ve told her that I am reciting kaddish for my papa at the request of my mama (in part), but what can I relate to her about kaddish beyond this?

As she grew older and became more articulate, she gradually came to express more and more ideas surrounding the death of her Dedushka Shurik, and I answered her in ways that I sensed she could process. Even before she asked me about his being dead, I had intentionally been teaching her about living things (plants and animals), and I had shown her dead insects and dried leaves that had fallen from the trees. Without speaking directly about my father, I was attempting to explain his death.

None of us were prepared for Papa’s death, and all this year we’ve been keeping ourselves together as best we could.

God knows we really tried.

* * *

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