What does the Torah teach us about the traumatic and heart wrenching death: the loss of a child?

When Jacob’s children go down to Egypt in search of sustenance they unexpectedly come face to face with their long-lost brother Joseph. But they don’t recognize him. Joseph, who is now second in command to Pharaoh, jails one of the brothers, Simeon, and sends the remaining brothers back to their home in Canaan. When they return to their father Jacob without Simeon, Jacob is beside himself.  Not only has he lost one beloved son, believing Joseph was murdered, but now a second son’s life in imminent danger.  It is in this context that Jacob utters the term that is designated for parents who have lost a child – shakhul (Genesis 42:36). Jacob says to his sons: I have lived for so many years as a shakhul, please don’t let this happen to me again. 

Thousands of parents experience child loss each year: miscarriages and stillborn births, infant death, death from sickness and disease, children killed by terrorism or acts of violence, children killed in accidents, and sometimes there are children who pass away suddenly without warning, without explanation.

There is no one term in English for a parent who loses a child. Perhaps this is because the culture does not perceive the loss of a child to be any different than any other death. Shakhul is often simply translated as “bereaved,” which does not capture its true meaning.

Jacob lives 22 years with the belief that Joseph, then his teenage son, has tragically died. Although this portion of the Torah is not usually read in this light, we have a snapshot of how a parent mourns a child’s death.

Jacob tears his garment (Genesis 37:34). This is the first time a Jew rends his garment, a ritual incorporated into halacha, Jewish law, and we continue to observe it on the death of a parent, spouse or sibling. According to our sages, the act symbolizes the permanent tear in one’s heart.

Jacob’s family and friends try to comfort him for his loss, says the Torah “…but he refused to be comforted” (37:35). The classic commentator Rashi explains that Jacob was really saying that he felt that he would never find comfort for the rest of his life after losing a child (Rashi 37:35, ‘Avel Sheola’).

The pain is a lingering pain; the tear in one’s heart is permanent.

During the 22 years that Jacob mourns the loss of his son, the commentaries say that Jacob experiences an absence of God’s presence in his life (Rashi, Genesis 45:27). The Shechina, God’s warmth and closeness, which once permeated Jacob’s life, now seems to be gone. Apparently, the Torah is suggesting that the experience of child loss is unique. Remarkably, the descriptions that we find in these verses reflect the way parents still describe this kind of bereavement – a pain that never leaves.

In all the years I studied and taught the story of Jacob and Joseph, I never saw it in this light until, I, tragically, experienced the sudden death of my own four-year-old son, Elisha Chanina z”l. As I now continuously search the Torah and our holy books for insight and wisdom in confronting my aching loss, I have found comfort in discovering that the Torah treats child loss in way that is honest and real. It establishes a word specifically for parents who endure the bitterness and pain of child loss.

One who loses his parents is an orphan; bereaved spouses become widows and widowers. These are losses so profound that a special word is needed to express the new state of being.  By designating a specific term, shakhul, for parents who have lost a child, the Torah is calling for added sensitivity towards the pain parents endure and is demonstrating awareness of the enduring emotional scar.

A Source of Strength

As I have learned over the three years and nine months since my son’s passing, every individual experiences grief differently. But there are some general recommendations as to how one can be a source of strength for those who have suffered this kind of tragedy.

Carefully choose the words used when speaking to a bereaved parent; not only during the few days of shiva, but for the years to follow. Never say, “You’ll get over it” or ‘I’m sure you will find closure.” Better to say, “I am thinking about you” or “Today I thought about your son/daughter,” and share a memory.

Parents who have lost a child do not ever want their child to be forgotten. One of the best things others can do is to show that they care and help ensure that the child’s memory endures. A close friend of ours made a small memory book of pictures and thoughts that she gave to us and to each of our parents. That small book continues to be meaningful to us, and through it we feel the embrace of that person.

Caring friends can also show love and sympathy by sending an email or a note on each birthday of the deceased child or on each yahrtzeit, or support a project that the family may have initiated in the child’s memory. People can also give to other charities or perform other acts of kindness and let the parents know that they have done so in the child’s memory. These and other gestures offer loving support that can make a real difference to the broken-hearted family.

When the Torah describes the great blessing of peace and tranquility that will one day in the future come to the Jewish people, we again find the use of the term shakhul (Exodus 23:26).  God promises that parents will no longer witness the death of their children, and the verse concludes, “I will let you count the fullness of your days.” Of the multitude of gifts the Torah could have promised for the future, the Torah chooses to highlight the removal of the trauma of child loss and its harsh pain.

The Torah is well aware that until that great era of blessing arrives, we continue to grapple with this heartbreaking mystery, and struggle to cope with one of life’s greatest tragedies. The story of Jacob opens a door for us to discuss our tradition’s perspectives and insights regarding the loss of a child. As the descendants of Jacob who pursue the sacred task of building noble and caring communities, we are reminded to open our collective hearts with compassion and loving care.