“Empty chairs and empty tables, there’s a grief that goes on and on.” (Les Miserables)
Pesach, the yom tov when families gather around the seder table to remember our journey from slavery to freedom. The youngest child is given the task of asking the four questions, the first being, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
The difference for me is, thirty one years ago on the second night of Pesach, my eldest son Gavin died. Nine years later on the fifth night, my middle son Michael died.
Not only Pesach but every yom tov overflows with sadness.
I am far from alone in missing the presence of loved ones during the yomim tovim. Last year, as a longstanding member of the Jewish Bereaved Parents Group (JBP) and the Compassionate Friends Victoria (TCFV), a non denominational support group, I met with parents who have gone through a double trauma – not only the agony of burying their child with all the attendant grief, but also feelings of devastation at the loss of their grandchild/ren. The grandchildren did not die, but the grieving grandparents were unable to see their grandchildren because their son/daughter’s remaining partner denied them access. Some hadn’t seen them for over ten years. Truly, grief upon grief.
Grandchildren are the living embodiment of the son or daughter who died, proof they had existed. Also, family was so important to these parents, especially those who had little or no family living in Australia and in particular those from a Holocaust background.
John* told me that family was the only reason he managed to get out of bed every day. For Sue* and Peter*, their grandchildren were the living link to their son or daughter, and they were deeply distressed that they would no longer be able to pass on their family’s history and culture. Mary,* grief ravaged and distraught, told me when her grandchildren had lost their mother, they had also lost the connection to their aunts, uncles and cousins, “And my husband and I have not only lost our daughter but also a future with our grandchildren.”
For some, within a couple of months of the death of their daughter/son, barriers were imposed preventing them from seeing their grandchildren; for others, it was much later.
In Peggy’s* case it was two years later. When her daughter-in-law Monica* remarried, the new husband cut Peggy* out of their lives. Another couple were stopped from seeing their four grandchildren when their son-in-law remarried.
How does one begin to comprehend the remaining partner’s attitude towards the grandparents? Possibly, whilst shrouded in the devastating loss of their partner they don’t stop to realise the impact, the immeasurable never ending grief a parent endures after the death of their child. I know personally I wasn’t aware of it at the time. A child’s death is like no other loss; it defines the past, torments the present, and deprives one of the future.
Children also grieve as intensely as adults. One grandchild crying and fearful after the death of her mother said to her grandmother, “What will happen to me if daddy dies?” The grandmother reassured her, “You will have us and your uncles, aunts and cousins.” Imagine if you can, how this child felt not being allowed to see this side of their family? Too often the remaining parent fails to understand that by cutting the children off from their extended family, they are doubling the grief of not only the grandparents but also the children.
Embarrassingly, I must admit that when my forty-year-old husband died suddenly from a heart attack and left me with three young boys, I was so caught up in my own grief that I could not comprehend the grief my mother-in-law was experiencing. It was only when I suffered the loss of my own sons that I understood the similarities and differences between burying a husband and burying a child. Also, realising something might happen to me, I reassured them that if indeed anything happened, they would be well taken care of by family who loved them.
In writing this, it is my sincere hope that those young widows and widowers, sitting around the seder table with their children, may read this and gain some understanding of what it is like for parents who must cope with the double loss of their child’s death and being denied access to their grandchildren – grief upon grief.
This is an edited version of an informal study completed this year by Barbara Kessel BSW, Grad Dip Family Therapy, bereaved mother of Gavin, Michael and Jeremy. All names* have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed and their family members. The results of the study were printed in TCFV’s Newsletter Grieve Heal Grow (July 2021). For further information and support contact Cynthia Pollak at Jewish Bereaved Parents Support Group: 0403 867 494 or [email protected]
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