Since my son, Ariel Avrech, z”l, died, much of my waking and sleeping life – I dream of him often – is taken up with assembling images of him. Ariel was niftar almost four years ago, but I have experienced what I’ve come to call “post-traumatic loss syndrome.” These are stages of mourning, but they are more complex and baffling than the standard ones put forth in the research I’ve read.
I have wrestled with shadows of faded memories, endured frustrating attempts to reclaim my bond with Ariel. I’ve had to work on evoking a feeling that used to be spontaneous and as natural as breathing. I know as a psychologist that there are reasons for this amnesia-like state, this sense of removal. I could not go on in my life if I felt the impact of the loss all at once.
I’ve told others that I now understand, for the first time, why survivors of the Holocaust could not talk of their experiences until fifty years had passed. They had to repress the horror. They had no choice but to block out the feelings of loss while building their own lives, while raising their children.
If they revived these memories earlier, they would have been paralyzed. They had to block out the trauma, compartmentalize the raw feelings into a deep hidden corner of their brain. They had to, or they would shrivel up from the pain.
They could only unfreeze, though subconsciously, these memories once they knew their work had been accomplished, their fortunes made, and they were assured that their children were building families of their own.
The paradox is that as time passes, the piercing sense of my own loss is mounting. My memories are returning and my psyche is allowing me to remember the real Ariel, the authentic Ariel, the child, the teenager, the almost-man, not some abstract Ariel that got me through his grim illness and tragic death. The defenses are melting, and the relief of feeling the immediacy of Ariel’s presence in his absence is taking hold.
I have flashbacks now to his early years. The other day I vividly saw him as a two year old, in a red fleece jacket, rosy-cheeked in the New York winter, head covered in his navy wool hat.
I see him standing in his room as a twenty year old, intent on organizing, once and for all, his voluminous library, an inspiration that hit him every now and then. He took pleasure in ordering his immense collection of literature and seforim – from the Maharal to Moby Dick.
Images are returning, and tears are falling from my eyes at the oddest moments. Along with the grieving, one seeks messages. There must be some meaning, some ongoing connection – a small miracle that gives solace. I like to tell myself that I was granted one such message recently.
Ariel fought a courageous battle against cancer that began when he was fourteen. He lived cancer-free for five years, graduating as the valedictorian of Yeshiva Gedolah High School of Los Angeles. He went on to study at Baltimore’s Ner Yisroel for three years.
A devastating delayed side effect of the brutal chemotherapy caught us all by surprise. Ariel needed a lung transplant. During the months he patiently waited for the organ, my eldest daughter was learning in a seminary in Israel, Michlelet Mivaseret Yerushalayim. It was a hard decision for the family, but we felt she should be allowed to have as normal a life as possible.
When my daughter returned, she gave me a lovely leather siddur with an inscription thanking me for the privilege of that special year in Israel. She wrote how grateful she was for the experience, acknowledging that she knew how hard the year had been for us.
Five years later, my younger daughter is now attending the same seminary. In November, my husband and I visited her. In Yerushalayim, all roads lead to the Kotel, so I took my siddur with me each morning, thinking I might wind up there. I know it dropped out of my bag in the taxi from the hotel to her school. I called the taxi company three times. Each time they rudely told me, “We told you that we did not find any siddur!”