Talking with mothers who have lost children, I have felt that I heard—I mean, really heard—the prophet Jeremiah’s familiar words for the first time: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children and refuses to be comforted.” Why? ”Because they are no more,” Jeremiah answers tautologically. “Because they are no more.”
Bereaved mothers turn towards different strategies in their attempt to “contain” their loss. The women profiled here—Ruth Schuhnan, Rochelle Sobel and Susan Weiner— turned to activism. Three emotions converged that seemed to prompt them. First, returning to their lives after their children’s death—as though nothing had changed—felt a sacrilege. Second, being “helpless” felt oxymoronic—mothers are not helpless; the need to refute such powerlessness at times overwhelmed them. Third, the thought that their child might be forgotten in the world—that the universe might actually erase the precious names Adina, Aron and Adam—was more than they could bear.
In talking to Rochelle, Ruth and Susan, I was struck by the extra burden they each carry of living in a culture that marginalizes the experience of grief, that speaks of “closure” as a defense against non-grievers’ sense of helplessness, that trivializes and dismisses, rather than honors, the importance of memory, and that reacts with puzzlement and judgment to the fact that some holes in the heart will always be holes. The overriding message in our culture is: move on, move on. If you don’t move on, that speaks poorly about who you are.
The cultural mythologizing of motherhood is a burden, too—mothers are God, omniscient and omnipotent when it comes to their children: What lesser beings we must be when, from our perch in Maryland, we fail to stop a tired bus driver from speeding on a road without a guard rail in Turkey. Why hadn’t we seen to that guard rail? Why hadn’t we been in that dormitory room at college?
Several studies of bereaved mothers reflect that bereavement following the death of a child lasts forever. But need that be inconsistent with changing the world while one grieves?
Lilith here profiles three mothers whose covenants with their children involve founding organizations in their memory. Collectively these women create a powerful recursive voice that at the same time curses darkness and lights a candle.
Where is it written that we can’t do both? These women are going to disturb the universe for a lifetime.