Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

A Child Dies: Emotional Grief at Christmas Time

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 9:24 am on Thursday, December 16, 2021

by Robert M. Katzman © Sunday, December 22, 2019

Written in response to Peggy’s letter of pain on Facebook: No, Peggy, I don’t know you, but I felt compelled to respond. Perhaps it will give you some possible way to cope and find peace.

I have not lost a child, but seem blessed or cursed with massive empathy, with absorbing others’ pain so intensely, it is like having a massive unpredictable Empath Serpent coiled within me, sometimes rearing up and piercing my heart with its fangs. I have no shield to stop me from caring.

I am Jewish, not into ritual, but deeply spiritual, and now old enough to have experienced the loss of so many people that I have forgotten some of their names.

A village of dead friends and relatives scattered across many towns, this country and other countries. I see their faces, can hear their voices in my mind, some of them locked in an endless loop of a certain holiday scene where I was less, to them, then whatever I might ever aspire to be. Yes, I can hear their voices. No volume control to the–endlessly anticipated–onslaught of the daggers they pierced me with when I wasn’t allowed to respond:

“Bobby! Respect your Elders and be quiet!!”

But the good ones remain, as well, Peggy. Always so quiet, with their dark eyes still so bright across a century. Their lips don’t move and silence surrounds them.

But they talk to me, Peggy. Not in words, but in helping me navigate morally ambiguous situations over my nearly seventy years. They seem to nudge me. No one screams at me any longer. No one can. I have become the Eldest of the Elders. The gift of revenge? Such a thought reinforces my sense of the existance of God, of balance and justice. Maybe God is actually…fair?

I don’t know.

Maybe not in many other’s lives, but in my life of irrational violence, it rings true.

The worst of my family have evaporated, freeing me from their seemingly endless holiday tyranny. Not smart enough. Not successful enough. Not religious enough, and on, and on. I am certain any Christian or Muslim or someone of many other faiths and creeds understands this situation. Cruelty has no ethnicity, no saints, no prophets…and when it happened, no Divine intervention, either. Or so it seemed to me at the time, when I was small and with no defenders.

But Peggy, the good ones, the kind ones, the ones who held and hugged me, transmitted love without words; perhaps because of their own fears of retribution, they remain. I can feel them. Especially when alone and in my kitchen. Perhaps cooking invokes their spirits. Perhaps they miss the wonder, the delectable fragrance of the old recipes from Europe. Who knows?

My kitchen seems to expand to accommodate the body-less crowds. I see Celia from Poland, her father Moshe, her sister Shirley who hid behind the barn with her when their father was beheaded in a Pogrom. Maybe because I am the last namesake? Nathan from Byelorussia who was halfway across the Atlantic in 1914 when World War One began, and who was alone among his family of twelve to survive, because they all were too timid to emigrate.

I see my mother, Anne, my father, Israel, my sister, Bonnie. They came from different paragraphs already written above. A thorned-thicket of anger here, but I’m deciding not to enter it. I can choose. I am not compelled to slash myself to express complex emotions in my letter to you, Peggy.

I see Mollie, and Milton, and Sylvia and Foster and the other Milton and Herman — the first of the immigrants to die — and Adele and Ziggy and Diana and, and…? Oh, I am sorry. But there are so many and I am older now.

I see orphan Rose from Lithuania who was sent off alone to America by cruel relatives because they told her she was too plain to marry off. I see skinny Jacob, the carpenter from Megilev-on-the-Dnieper River who escaped from Poland in a hay-wagon, as family legend has it, because when the border guards pierced the hay with their bayonets, he was too slim a target to kill. One of five brothers and not handsome, he made it to America, too.

The richer established German Jews in New York City didn’t want illiterate, stinking, impoverished, unsophisticated and Yiddish–speaking Jews from Eastern Europe to diminish their centuries of hard-won social standing in America. So, under the illusion of charity (to themselves, perhaps) they sent off these masses of ragged rabble across the United States, far far away from New York City. Thus were these two souls, Jacob and Rose, to meet and marry in the cosmopolitan center of Yiddishkite-culture, of Newport, Kentucky.

Those who believe that their superior educations, accumulated wealth and secure social status bolsters their illusions of their sophistication and makes them imagine that they are more valuable in the Eyes of God than lesser others. I believe that my own antagonism toward such people who think this way has been firmly and genetically transmitted across Time, space, oceans. 

Grandma and Grampa, your fierce spirit survives in me; and I believe, it also lives on in the kindness and decency of my children.

I see Agnes and Jim, my Irish immigrant neighbors in a ramshackle shanty next door who kindly gave me their dog, Smokey, to play with in their house when no pet was allowed in mine. Because of them whom I met at age five, Gaelic voices and music endure as rich poetry within me, from 1955 on. Yes, I can still hear you, Mrs. Gelin, remember your clouds of cigarette smoke and see your dimly lit shanty.

The pets? Oh, the pets. The canaries and parakeets and dogs and cats and newts and mice and turtles and…ok, mostly the dozen dogs I slept with across my life and theirs…well, they are everywhere in my kitchen, on the walls, on the ceiling and snuggling up to me when I need them. Oh, man, I think God gave us furry dogs so we could withstand all of the insanity among our families, Peggy!

Can any of you reading this understand me?

The good intermingling with the bad?

To say this as essentially as I can; my kitchen, that warm embracing glow of my kitchen…my kitchen is Joyce in another form. During our 42 years together, she made me kinder, better, more accepting of the monsters within and without my/our families, because whatever was wrong with me, she needed me in hers. Together, we kept our Legions of Demons at bay. If I was, maybe, a hero to her, she was my shield and sword. She looks after me, still.

And, well, not so silently, either. Her own blue eyes have drawn more blue eyes into my quiet orbit. Funny, how they both look so…Blu-ish.

Advice from the Eldest, Peggy?

Imagine that now missing child who is gone from your life, is still present, lingering around you, forever young, listening to whatever you want to say, wordlessly, just a message from your mind, your heart to the child.

I have done this many times, sometimes once, sometimes frequently, depending on who it is and what I need to say.

When your family meets, pick someone with warm eyes and arms who’s not judgmental to sit with, who has a giving heart and wants attention from you, too. I hope perhaps that comfort of community helps get you through another difficult Christmas while still thinking about the invisible and forever empty chair filled with the child who will never grow up.

No, Peggy, for me there is no Santa Claus; unless, perhaps, Kindness is another name for him.

Merry Christmas to all of you, whether visible or not. 


Comment by Brad Dechter

December 16, 2021 @ 9:54 am

We’ll done and point well made. Thanks!
Taking both the good and the bad together is tough- I like the approach taken here to focus on the good.
Nice giving us a glimpse of history too!
Happy Holiday Season!

Comment by Jim Payne

December 17, 2021 @ 9:25 am

Bob, you are an artist whose brush is words and whose talent is painting verbal pictures. You are a master of details. Thank you.

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