It was a house of mourning, like so many I had been in before. On a table in the corner, the flame of a lone candle flickered. People spoke in hushed tones, afraid that their voices might carry. Grief and sadness were everywhere, and an air of sorrow filled the room. It was like every other house of mourning; yet, for me, this time it was different. This time, it was my house that was filled with sadness. And it was I who was in mourning.
My family sat in the living room on small chairs, low to the ground. In the same spot where we had celebrated her birth with a festive kiddush just three and a half months earlier, we now sat shiva for my baby daughter, Shoshana Devora, may she rest in peace. The “sweetest little baby in the world,” as I had often called her, had gone in for a nap by the baby-sitter, never to awaken. A perfectly normal, healthy baby had died suddenly, for no apparent reason, and the slightly imperfect world of our family had been cast into indescribable sadness and unbearable pain.
Many of the people who walked through our doorway to comfort us in our time of sorrow were themselves extremely disturbed by what had occurred. After all, this is not something that is supposed to happen. To our eyes, death is reserved for the sick, elderly and infirm. Innocent, healthy little babies are not supposed to die. Yet, surprisingly, by the last days of the shiva, I found myself much more at ease, much less troubled, than many of those who were coming to offer us strength.
The death certificate states that Shani died of S.I.D.S., a totally not understood phenomenon. Perfectly healthy babies die in their sleep, without so much as a hint that there is something wrong. The general practice in such cases, which with the help of many caring individuals we were able to avoid, is for the medical examiner to perform a full autopsy. All of the child’s vital organs are removed and they are subjected to every manner of test known to medical science. In the end, absolutely no problem of any kind is found with them. The reason for the death is totally inexplicable to the doctors and researchers. However, since it happens about 4000 times a year in the United States, they gave it the name of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or S.I.D.S. It’s only a fancy way of saying: “We don’t know why, we can’t explain it, but since it happens with frequency, it must be something.”
As we sat in the emergency room that evening – arguing with medical examiners and judges, dealing with the burial society, deciding on a place to bury her – our lives suddenly shattered in pieces around us, I shared with my wife one comforting thought: “At least we had been spared a lifetime of guilt and torment. Since there was no apparent cause, there was nothing we, or anyone else, could have done to prevent it.”
The next morning, waiting for the medical examiner to release the body so that we could make a funeral, the same thought that had comforted me the night before came back to haunt me. “Why,” I asked myself, “if she was perfectly healthy, did she have to die? There was nothing wrong. She wasn’t the least bit sick. How in the world could this happen?” It was, to say the least, a very disconcerting question, and one I feared would haunt me for the rest of my life.
Strangely enough, it is in the seemingly inexplicable and incomprehensible nature of her passing that I am able to find true solace and comfort in Shoshana’s death. We are so used to analyzing and explaining nature that, when presented with an event that contradicts all that we know and understand to be true, we throw up our hands in exasperation and find ourselves at a loss. Yet, it is in exactly those situations where the truth should be most clear. The only possible explanation is that there is a God who runs the world; that everything that occurs is only because He wills it to be so; that life and death are completely in His hands; and that, whether it agrees with nature or not, He is the one who determines exactly how long a person will live and the amount of time they will have on this earth.
On the certificate issued by the medical examiner, on the line stating “cause of death,” the doctor will write: SIDS. On my copy, however, I would simply write: God runs the world. He had determined that she would only live four and a half months. When she reached that moment, her life ended, just as He had planned. The seemingly random nature of her passing was not random at all. Rather, it was exactly as He had decided it would be from the very beginning. Her life simply ended because that was all the time she had been given.
I thought back to a time almost a year before. During the third month of her pregnancy with Shani, my wife had experienced an incident which was a cause of great concern. We wound up consulting a high-risk obstetrical specialist. After studying the results of the ultrasound examination he had administered, he sat facing us behind his desk, his manner ominous. “The situation is serious,” he had told us then. “There is probably only a 50-50 chance that the baby will make it.” His facial expression, however, said that the baby didn’t have a chance.
My wife contacted a well known Rabbi and asked that he give us a blessing. The message was relayed to him, and his response gave us some degree of hope. His words: “The baby will be zara chaya v’kayama – the baby will live and survive.”
Much to everyone’s surprise, most of all the doctor’s, the baby’s situation began to improve dramatically. Repeated ultrasounds showed that the threat to the viability of the pregnancy had decreased markedly, and after four weeks, my wife was allowed to leave her bed and resume her normal daily routine. In my mind, however, the same fear overtook me every single day: maybe she’ll lose the baby.
Ultimately everything turned out all right. On June 24, 1997, at 5:50 in the morning, my daughter made her appearance in this world. She was of perfect weight, perfect size; perfect and healthy, in fact, in every way imaginable. The kind of child that every parent hopes and prays for. There were no deformities; no abnormalities; no imperfections of any kind. Just a beautiful, huggable, adorable infant, with at least three chins and cheeks that took up most of her face. When you would look in her eyes, you sensed intelligence and understanding.
She was the kind of baby that everyone could love, and love her we did. With seven older brothers and sisters, it didn’t take long before they were arguing over her and fighting to take care of her. Holding her. Playing with her. And loving her.
And what would Shani do? She would sit there in her swing, or lie on her blanket on the floor, her huge cheeks sitting on three chins, a serious look on her face, until she realized you were looking at her. Then, your attention would be rewarded ten-fold, as her entire face would erupt in a huge smile, and a look of love and adoration would fill her eyes. When you spoke to her, she would make noises back, and you sensed there was something wonderful she was trying to tell you as she snuggled comfortably in your grasp. That was the situation from the day she was born until the moment she passed away.
Suddenly, so suddenly, it all ended. Sitting in the hospital, trying to absorb what had occurred, there was one point that my wife struggled to come to terms with. “How could it happen?” she sobbed. “Didn’t we get a blessing from the Rabbi? Didn’t he say that she would be ‘zara chaya v’kayama’, a living and surviving child?”
I can’t pretend to speak for this wonderful Rabbi. But, to be honest, I don’t understand the question. Is there any other way to characterize my baby’s life? The term “chaya v’kayama,” living and surviving, implies that the child will be healthy and strong, able to survive. So she was. There was never any sickness, never any pain. She was strong, happy and healthy and she survived. For as long as she was destined to. Up to, and including, her last breath.
One of the women in our community, a person who knew Shani and was truly heartbroken, sat in my kitchen and put to me the question that shadowed her every thought. “Rabbi,” she asked, the pain coming through in her words, “how can God let such a bad thing happen?”
I’m far from able to even begin to fathom the Divine plan in any circumstance, and certainly not one which so deeply affects me. But, in my mind, there was, and is, only one true way to respond; that it isn’t bad, and nothing happened. Something just ended. As it had clearly been meant to end from the beginning.
And how can you call it bad? If a person lived 70, 80 or 100 years, and everyone who knew them found them a source of only love and happiness; they themselves knew no suffering, only the adoration and love of others; when such a person would die, how would we feel? Certainly, there would be the hurt and pain of losing such a wonderful human being, and they would be missed dearly. But, reflecting on their life, would you feel sorry for them? Would you feel an ounce of regret for the beautiful, perfect world they had known and created? I ask you, then: does it really make a difference whether it’s meant to be 135 years or 135 days? In terms of good and bad, I just don’t see how you can call something so special, so wonderful, so beautiful, “bad.” It’s hard to call it good, because it hurts too much. But you can’t call it bad.
That Wednesday morning, during the last few hours we were to have her, when things were still good and the sun still shined, I wanted to make my wife feel even better about our baby. You know how it is. With the hustle and bustle of a large family, and the extra demands of an infant, you sometimes forget how special they really are. As my wife held Shani, and my little baby’s face erupted in her trademark smile, I pointed at her and told my wife – “That’s our miracle baby. This is the baby who wasn’t supposed to be here.” She was a free gift from G-d, a gift that, perhaps, at one point I was never meant to receive. What bothers us so is that the gift was for so short a time.
There is a story in the Talmud that I had taught in my daily class a few days before Shoshana died, that keeps running through my head. It tells of how the Sages, for various reasons, decided to remove Rabban Gamliel as the Prince and Head of the yeshiva. Looking for a replacement, they settled on Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya. When they offered him the position, he consulted his wife, who asked him a pointed question. “What do you need this for? How do you know that they won’t throw you out tomorrow, just as they threw Rabban Gamliel out today?”
I had explained Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s reply as follows. “And if they do remove me? So what if I occupy the position for only one day? Does it mean that it has no value? Absolutely not! From that day on, my whole outlook on life will be different and improved. Everything will take on new meaning. I’ll know what it feels like to be head of the yeshiva. From that one day, I’ll have memories that will last a lifetime. Everything I look at will be from a different perspective, a more meaningful one, because of the moments I served in that capacity. Are you saying that, just because an experience won’t last forever, it means that it has no value? That, since I might have to give it up, I should never know the experience in the first place? That it won’t be worth every second because it will have to end? Chas v’shalom! Heaven forbid!”
I feel exactly the same way about my baby.
God gives us many gifts in life. Some are long-term; others are short-term. Each child is a precious gift from Him. I sincerely hope and pray that the seven gifts he has given me, and the ones that will, God willing, come along, will be long-term ones, for 120 years. But the eighth gift he gave me was a short-term one. And she was a gift that I really thought I would never have. So, what should I do? Should I sit here and be angry, and complain to God because He cheated me? Or should I sit and be grateful for every single day of the free, short-term gift He bestowed upon us? The first day we had her was wonderful, and it didn’t necessarily ever have to have happened. So, too, the second. And the third. And the 135th. They were all wonderful, special days that, at one point or another, I didn’t think would ever be. The challenge for us is not whether we will be angry with God or harbor complaints against Him. The challenge is whether we have the capacity and ability to appreciate every special moment He gave us. Guess what? We do.
During the week-long period of mourning, Shani’s playpen remained in its place in the corner of the living room, her toys inside it. Her swing stayed in my study, and her crib still stood in our bedroom. Some of the people who came to console us, especially some who had lost children the same way we did, were upset. They felt that it must be too painful for us to see those items. If they felt that way when their own child passed away, that’s all right. Everyone deals with this in the way that’s best for them. I, however, didn’t feel that way. I know that her things will eventually have to be put away. But she did live. She was a part of our family, a part that was adored more than anyone can imagine. And she continues to be a part of us.
When I shared my thoughts with someone else who had lost a child, he looked at me, shook his head, and said, “You have a lot more faith and belief than I did.” I think he’s mistaken. It’s really not a question of faith or belief. Just look at the facts as I have related them. Look at the before, the during, and the end. Turn them upside down, twist them around or do anything else you wish to them. And then you tell me. Is there any other way to understand this story? Isn’t it obvious that this child was meant to be here for only a short time, and that the time she had was special and wonderful? On top of that, we almost didn’t get her. If you can find any reason for problems or complaints, please enlighten me. Because I only see reasons to be grateful. Abundantly grateful.
One of the hardest parts of our loss is explaining all this to Shani’s brothers and sisters. The baby that they had loved so much had been taken away from them. They each had their own private, personal relationship with her, and each one grieves deeply, but differently. There are many different meals being served in our house these days; no one is eating the same lunch. I try to help them deal with it as positively as possible. I tell them to imagine if God would have gathered the whole world together and said, “I have a special little girl I need someone to take care of and love. But, I have to tell you in advance — I’m only going to give her for four and a half months. Who’s willing to take her?” Knowing now how special she was, and how much she meant to us, would we have ever let anyone else even try to get her? Imagine if, a year ago, He would have looked into the future and seen how sad we are and how much we miss her. What if He would have decided that it’s not fair for us to feel so much sorrow; so, to spare us, He was going to give her to some other family? All of my children agree. We wouldn’t want to have missed her for anything in the world.
One of my youngest, not yet old enough to fully comprehend what has occurred, asked me the other day, “Why did Shani die?” I told her that God had a special little girl whom he had to send down to live. However, she was so special, and He would miss her so much, that He couldn’t bear to be apart from her for long. So, He was only going to send her away for 135 days. She didn’t want to be away from Him, either, even for so short a time, but He told her she had to go. As a consolation, He promised her that He would find the very bestest, the very lovingest, the very special-est family, who would love her and hold her and take the very best care of her. Together, they looked down at all the families in the world. with all the brothers and sisters, “and,” I asked her, “guess which special sister they found? Can you guess who that family was?” She broke into a smile as wide as the room, and proudly pointed at herself.
Perhaps we might just get through this all right, after all.
This is not to say that we aren’t hurting. Believe me, we are. For my wife, the evenings are hardest. For me, the mornings are my time to cry. Strangely, as the days pass, the pain seems only to intensify and I miss her more and more. If your heart goes out to us, if you want to share our hurt, if you want to take a part of our sorrow over how much we miss her, we won’t object. Pain shared is pain lessened. But if you wish to help us deal with the seeming injustice of it all, the apparent unfairness of it all, please don’t bother. For while we will always grieve and there will always be pain, there will also always be gratitude and appreciation. For having gotten something that we thought we would never have. For a lifetime of happy memories condensed in four and a half months. And for having merited to receive the most special short-term gift we could ever have hoped for — Shoshana Devora, the sweetest little baby in the world.
Rabbi Avrohom Stone is a Rabbinic Field Representative of the Orthodox Union. This article originally appeared in The Jewish Observer, December 1997 issue. Reprinted with permission. To receive a copy of the original publication, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.