Dear Rabbi Schusterman,
I lost my young daughter tragically in an auto accident three years ago. I’ve been through the worst of the grieving and am back to most of my previous routines. I have a husband and other children who need me, and I need them too. The emotional wounds are healing, though scars remain, perhaps indefinitely.
My question is this: many people continue to see me through the prism of my tragic event. Some tiptoe around me very gingerly as if I will break, and I have noticed that some people avoid me completely. Why do they do this, and how do I deal with it?
H.S., Phoenix, AZ
You can set the tone. Proverbs teaches: “As water reflects a face back to a face, so one’s heart is reflected back to him by another.” If you see and carry yourself as a grieving mother, they will treat you that way. If you see and comport yourself as a vibrant woman who sadly lost a child, you will be respected, even admired, for your strength and resilience. You may believe that as you are out and about in society that you are in fact conveying your vibrant self, unaware that echoes of your sadness—very understandably—are coming through. Also bear in mind that your loss is frightening to others. If it can happen to her, it could also happen to me, they think. In this way, without meaning to or without being aware of it, they may keep a certain distance, even though tragedy is not “contagious.”
Additionally, reflecting on your traumatic loss can evoke in others their own personal unresolved traumas. While that is their issue, not yours, it may play a hidden role in this dynamic.
I would suggest making an effort to socialize with the people with whom you would like to reestablish your former, easy connection. Invite a friend to have lunch with you, or to go to a museum, or some activity you both would enjoy and that can take you both out of the usual atmosphere where your loss won’t feel so apparent.
Rabbi Gershon Schusterman