Chai Lifeline Bereavement Retreat Offers a Weekend of Nechama to Parents Mourning Children
There is a way that many bereaved parents refer to their situations. They euphemistically call it "The club that no one wants to belong to." This weekend, 38 "member families" gathered at the Jack and Moishe Horn Campus, home of Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special, for Chai Lifeline's annual Healing Hearts Bereavement Retreat.
"We come to heal, to be with the only people who truly share our pain, to cry together," said one parent. And so it was poignant to watch mothers who had met each other in hospital corridors or past Chai Lifeline events hug one another as family after family drove into the courtyard and walked into the Obstfeld Pavilion to receive room assignments. To an observer, it all seemed, well, so normal. But when parents talk to one another about the death of a child, it is obvious that "normal life" has changed forever for this group.
"We are every parent's worst nightmare," remarked a father casually. Norman Blumenthal, Ph.D., director of Chai Lifeline's department of crisis intervention and bereavement services, understands that sentiment. "Besides grieving the losses, our participants also celebrate life. Having experienced the unthinkable and so painfully missing their child, these remarkable individuals harbor a unique appreciation for every breathing moment and those loved ones still in their midst."
The Healing Hearts Bereavement Retreat is a weekend of intense peer and professional support that helps parents deal with the grief and the pain resulting from that loss. "We are here as "am echad v'lev echad," one people with one heart," said Teaneck father Daniel Newman. For Newman and his wife, Susan, the weekend was tinged with special memories: their late son Steven had been Bar Mitzvahed on this Shabbos. That occasion had been celebrated with family and friends. Now the memories were shared at the retreat.
Memories are critically important, not only during this weekend, but every day of these families' lives. "Don't forget my child" is a seldom-verbalized plea as well-meaning friends try to step around the elephant in the living room of every bereaved parent. Will a vignette about a child elicit tears? Perhaps, but it will also bring wistful smiles. Throughout the weekend, parents shared scrapbooks and photo albums, their eyes lighting up as they described lives cut short.
Dr. Blumenthal emphasized that the goal of the weekend is not to block the pain of the loss, but to facilitate the grieving process. "The pain is necessary for healing. In the end, the pain will recede, but the grief is forever."
Many in the group were comforted by the chance to walk on the same Camp Simcha paths trod by their children. "Our son Moshe loved this place," reminisced Pinchos and Baylee Mermelstein as they walked to lunch. "He was here for four years. The last summer, he was so sick. He went into the hospital for the last time the day after he came home from camp. We really think he was living for camp."
Throughout the weekend, parents went from meals to seminars and support groups facilitated by the department's professional staff, Dr. Blumenthal, Rabbi Yaakov Klar, Zahava Farbman, LCSW, and Cheryl Greenberger, Ph.D. Sunday morning, after the last group ended, they assembled for the last time, sitting in a large circle, preparing to return to a world where they feel truly alone.
"This has been a great Shabbos and we are grateful to Chai Lifeline," began one father. We have been here before, and we know that this is like home for us."
"When we came on Friday, we knew no one. We drove up, and everyone was dressed and I thought, ‘Where are we in this?' It's been only eight weeks for us, but being here and meeting all of you, I feel that we will get through this," said a mother.
Another mother concurred. "It really doesn't matter where you come from. When we are here, there is a tremendous achdus. We are all sharing so much pain."
Outside, the foliage was in peak season, the scenery a tableau of greens, reds, and oranges. Ordinarily, people's gazes would wander to the picture windows of the Strasser Family Dining Room, and the magnificent scene outside. But this morning, everyone's attention was fixed as Rabbi Avraham Nissanian, a bereaved father himself, intoned the Kal Maleh Rachamin. He carefully enunciated thirty-eight names. Thirty-eight children lost and mourned. A mother's hand flew to her heart when she heard her daughter's name. Another mother's breath caught in her throat, and her husband protectively slipped his arm around her. Fathers cried openly in the only place and time where they felt they could let go.
"It's one of the most difficult weekends of the year – and one of the most important," underscored Rabbi Simcha Scholar, Chai Lifeline's executive vice president. "Convening with trained professionals and other families also dealing with a child's passing gives parents tremendous strength. They see that it is possible to really live, not just survive from day to day, to find joy in their lives even though they have known the worst imaginable pain."
The Healing Hearts Bereavement Retreat is part of the Bellows National Crisis Intervention Program, a network of programs that help families, schools, camps, synagogues and community institutions cope with untimely death or medical crises. Chai Lifeline is grateful to the New York Life Foundation for its support of this retreat.