Joe Sterling: Navigating the land of grief after the death of my son

Posted: September 15, 2010

ELEVEN years ago, my wife and I entered the world of grief when we lost our teenage son.

This Saturday, on Yom Kippur, and three other times this year, we again will confront the never-ending anguish and heartache of this unfathomable death by dutifully participating in a Jewish memorial prayer service at synagogue called yizkor. We'll also go to services on his yahrzeit, the Jewish anniversary of his death.

The aftermath of this horror helped us gain a profound respect for organized religious life, Jewish and otherwise. After the death knocked us numb and we couldn't reason or plan anything, a synagogue committee devoted to helping those who grieve leaped into action, and the labors of those on the committee impressed us greatly.

People who didn't know us personally were there to help us navigate through the shock of death: They prepared our house for the shivah, the Jewish mourning period, and prepared food for us and the scores of friends and relatives who showed up at our door.

But eventually the mourning period ended, the crowds that filled our living room disappeared, and it didn't take us long to figure out that the funeral and the shivah inoculate you from the real world of the bereaved.

After we trudged back to slugging it out in the working world, we began to sense the enormity of our loss, and that's when the readjustment process began setting in. Year after year, we will spend most of our moments grappling with the sorrow just by ourselves.

The most profound lesson I took from this ordeal is that no one understands the death of a child unless the child is their own son, daughter or sibling, and we've had to make our displeasure known to ill-mannered people who needed to impart unsolicited advice and views.

Many people have asked us over the years if we've gotten "closure." The answer, of course, is no, never, unless you are a sociopath. We've run into people who have had the nerve to tell us that our boy's death was part of God's plan. We've encountered impatience from some because we continue to grieve, as if we're on the clock and there's a countdown toward normalcy.

But I soon learned not to knock these blabby simpletons. I know their lives and thoughts will change when they get a call or a knock on the door with the ultimate bad news.

When you grieve, you do things you never thought about doing before and see things you never once noticed.

I sweat in rage when I encounter a loutish teenager or a negligent parent, and I get very sad when I meet a respectful and wonderful young man or woman reminiscent of our son.

I can't stomach people who complain about trivial issues. I wish they would just shut up and smell the roses - the flowers in question being their children who are alive and well.

I was in such grief at one time that I read ideas about an afterlife, for the purpose of "contacting" my son. I don't really believe in the afterlife, but for some reason I had to explore this and get it out of my system.

One of my earliest memories is that of my distraught, tearful grandfather walking into our Wynnefield rowhouse after his wife's funeral in the 1950s. This memory emerges as I cry without warning when I think of my son, as I turn a corner at certain streets, recall something nice or read of another death.

Over the years, though, I've worked hard to not wallow in pain, and have learned not to allow myself to be in uncomfortable situations. I have no compunction about leaving an event immediately if something there disturbs me. And my wife and I haven't been shy about getting grief counseling, a process that helped us go forward.

Remembering our son and honoring him with our daily actions are the most important parts of the coping process.

I'll never forget the day I arrived early to pick my boy up at football practice not long before he passed away. To my surprise, he was waiting for me.

He told me that he and a Muslim kid on the team had chosen to walk out because a representative from a Christian athletes group was invited to preach to team members. (This was at a public school, by the way.)

So many kids would have caved under such pressure and stuck around. Our son reveled in the diversity that typifies the cities we lived in, but he knew who he was, was proud of his identity, and knew bad manners when he saw them. So he left.

The only advice I can give a parent who loses a child is to soldier on. As years move by, pleasant thoughts of the departed will replace the nightmares and the pain. The torment will always be there, but it will recede.

Here's a quote from the New York Times obit of Bob Lemon, the Cleveland Indians pitcher and Yankees manager, about the death of his son in an accident. I haven't stopped thinking about this remark after I first read it:

"I've never looked back and regretted anything. I've had everything in baseball a man could ask for. I've been so fortunate. Outside of my boy getting killed. That really puts it in perspective. So you don't win the pennant. You don't win the World Series. Who gives a damn? Twenty years from now, who'll give a damn?

"You do the best you can. That's it."

Joe Sterling, a Philadelphia native and a graduate of Temple University, is a news editor at CNN in Atlanta. A version of this essay appeared on

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