This October 24th marks 18 years since we buried our tiny son Ozzie. Oz in Hebrew means courage and strength. We named him in our minds and hearts at 11 weeks when we found out he was a boy not knowing how much we would need those qualities in the months ahead.
Our son died in utero at 26 weeks. I still remember that cold day because my then almost 2-year-old son was bundled up with blankets in the stroller watching our entire family cry and say goodbye to a child we had never really even properly said hello to. I believed or hoped that Asher would escape the pain of the death of his little brother, Ozzie. The tiny white casket seemed so out of place in the big black hearse. It just didn’t fit, didn’t make sense.
The loss of a child is one beyond words… Really, I have little words for that moment in time. Even now, retelling it, my eyes are wet and my heart is hurting. As I have counseled other mothers and fathers who have tragically lost a child, I have come to realize the pain doesn’t fully go away, ever. It sort of moves around me or, I should say, he, Ozzie, moves around me. I think of him often and what he would have been like, or how it would be if Asher had a brother and not a sister. When I kiss my daughter, I linger longer sometimes, simply thanking her for coming to me after such a painful loss. I know she would not be if he had not gone. Strangely I even thank Ozzie for leaving so I could hold her right now in my arms.
But today is about how we express our grief and memory of Ozzie, now seven years later. Asher and Tova didn’t know about their brother Ozzie until Tova was 4. Michael and I go to Ozzie’s grave twice a year. The day he died and the day he was due to be born. A while back we decided to share the story of Ozzie so the kids could go with us. We believed it would be healing to Asher, because we have always felt that he unconsciously knew that a tragedy had occurred in our family even if he didn’t have the words to express it at the time.
When Tova was not yet 5 and Asher was 7, I will never forget the first time, trying to not be too wordy or frightening to them with painful details about the loss of Ozzie, their deceased brother. I began explaining to her the grave site and that Ozzie’s body is buried there in the ground, but his soul is up in heaven. Asher was unsure of going and a little nervous, but Tova was interested. She gathered up a pinwheel and helped me pick flowers from our garden. When we arrived at the cemetery, Tova bounded out of the car with me while Asher stayed inside. I pointed out his grave marker as we sat down. I started to wipe it off, and I looked over my shoulder and saw Tova, leaning facedown into the grass talking to Ozzie, or really shouting hello to him. I explained to Tova that she could talk to Ozzie anytime and anywhere. The first time we went as a family, there were tears from both kids. We explained what had happened again and recited the Hebrew prayers.
On that day as we walked over to Ozzie’s grave, Asher carried the flowers while Tova carried the small stones from our garden that we brought to leave on his headstone. I must say, just like siblings, they argued over who would carry the flowers and who would carry the rocks! I am glad they are here with us to argue, I think to myself, before getting frustrated with them.
We all sit down around his grave marker and Asher reads it, “Beloved Son and Brother Ozzie Golland,” he smiles and puts his head into my lap. We all kiss our hands and place them on the shiny plaque. Michael recites the mourner’s kaddish as we close our eyes and listen. Tova looks around and asks who are all these other people. We explain that this is the children’s section of the cemetery, so these are all kids that passed away. She was a little shocked, and stood up and said, “I am going to count them!” She started to jump from each grave site, shouting, “One, two, three, four” — she counted to 38 and then plopped herself down next to Asher and I. Tired, bored, or both.
We sat quietly for a few more seconds, then Asher said, “Tova, let’s play tag!” They quickly jumped up and started chasing each other. They stopped and turned to Michael and said “Dad, you be it okay?” Michael popped up and started running after them. Both of them burst out laughing, running as fast as they could to get away. Their laughter was loud, full, and contagious. I found myself crying but laughing, a strange mix of joy, pain, and gratitude, and as I wiped my tears from my cheeks, I couldn’t help but think that there was no better a place to play tag.