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From The Greatest Heights (Chapter I)

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I have been promising myself that I would write about the death of my twins when I was ready. Ever since that fateful day more than 11 years ago, I have tried to write, dozens of times, but my attempts have drawn many tears and very few words. I tried again very recently, but didn’t get very far. And then the school shooting in Newtown changed everything.

While we all pray that nothing like this ever happens again, these events affect me in a very profound way. My wife could see it coming. From the moment the news broke until Shabbos started, I was glued to the television. Visions of children suffering and dying were my first thoughts. Those were quickly followed by a profound sense of sorrow and empathy. While the immediate pain is the most intense, long after the news cameras are gone and people start to view the massacre as just another tragic day, the parents of 20 children will be left with unimaginable pain.

I feel that pain. As guilty as I may feel that the intensity of the pain has subsided over the years, and I have allowed other things to occupy my thoughts, it doesn’t take much to bring me back to those horrific moments. I knew I wouldn’t get much sleep, and I prepared to welcome the return of my nightmares that Friday night. They aren’t as frequent as they used to be, but it never takes much to bring them back in full force.

No matter how many years pass, when uncovered, the wounds are still fresh and deep. We all feel their pain now, but understand that long after people start to forget what the name of that school in New England was called, the parents will have to keep on living without the most vital part of their lives.

Many parents who have lost children feel that loss most intensely at every should-have-been milestone. A deep sense of longing, isolation and loss accompany every would-have-been birthday, siddur play and lost tooth. Why was this taken from me? Was there anything I could have done? Did they die knowing how much I love them? Am I being punished? What could we possibly have done to deserve this? Unexpected loss raises so many questions and there are no answers.

The parents in Newtown are asking the same questions. What if we decided to take the day off? What if I hadn’t asked that he be switched to another class? Am I a failure as a parent because I couldn’t protect my child?

We had a future that will no longer be. All the visions, the birthdays, the flu, the weddings, the scraped knees, the grandchildren, the failures and the triumphs are gone – unexpectedly, in an instant. There is never a sense of understanding and there cannot be acceptance, and without understanding and acceptance it is nearly impossible to move on.

I know the situations and circumstances for my children are very different. I am not a fan of people’s desire to determine which situation is worse. Suffice it to say, there is no pain in this world comparable to that of a parent who loses a child.

In addition to the cruel reality of a lifetime without my children, I have been told that my children never really existed by more people than I can count. You see, my children passed away an hour after their birth. I have been told to get over it. I have been told how the death of children was an everyday part of life in Europe. I have been told that I couldn’t possibly have bonded with them, and I have no memories of happy times to haunt me. I have even been asked if I regret my decision to see them struggling before they died.

I usually ignore such comments, but on occasion I will ask if I was or was not a father for the hour I held my children while they died, desperately trying to find some way to express how much I loved them and how sorry I was that I couldn’t save them.

I tell them that I would have given anything in the world for the opportunity to watch them grow and truly express my love for them in a way that I know they could understand. The truth will always be that if given the choice, I would still give my life in an instant so that they could live.

Perhaps because my vision of their birth and death one hour later is forever seared in my memory, I never saw them as aging, until this last year. It was a sudden realization that the next two years were going to be very different. I suddenly realized that my wife and I would have been in the process of planning our daughter’s Bas Mitzvah had she survived. To compound the pain, the day after her Bas Mitzvah celebration we would have started planning for our son’s Bar Mitzvah. Two years of planning and celebration that will never be, two years of joy and happiness ripped from our lives forever.

It is important for me to tell the entire story, from the demeaning infertility process, to the exuberance at hearing the greatest news possible, to the prayers for a miracle and the sudden devastating realization that all is lost and that we are powerless to stop it.

I understand that this series will touch on some very emotional issues, and I understand that the process of telling this story will force me to revisit the darkest moments any person can ever experience in excruciating detail, but I feel compelled to give my son and daughter a voice. My son and daughter never had the chance to create their own legacy, and I need to try to provide one for them.

Several people contacted me following my series about my college experience to tell me that I was really telling their story. They felt that I was giving voice to things they had long felt, but were unable to express.

I am under no illusions that I will be able to provide any comfort to those parents in Newtown anytime in the near future, but if I can provide some sense of comfort or meaning, no matter how ephemeral, to grieving parents who know that the pain will never go away, I can at least feel that I have done something positive in the memory of my beloved children, Asher and Devorah.

Chaim Shapiro

About the Author: Chaim Shapiro, M.Ed is a freelance writer, public speaker and social media consultant. He is currently working on a book about his collegiate experience. He welcomes comments and feedback at chaimshapiro@aol.com or on his website: http://chaimshapiro.com/

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