Debra Greenberg, 1968-1989

Oddly it was September 11th. A couple of years prior to the September 11th most of us relate to. It was September 11th, 1989, when our daughter, Debra died. She died. We did not lose her. She did not pass on. She did not transition. Debra died and left behind her sister Amy, my wife Eileen, and myself. She left behind cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends, and many more. You see, there is no way to sugar coat the unexpected death of a child.

I am writing this at the suggestion of my wife, Eileen, as we anticipate the 25th anniversary of Debra’s death.

It was a one-car crash. There was no explanation. Debra was comatose upon arriving at the hospital and there was never any real hope. When we asked our family doctor if Debra should be moved to a big city hospital, he said “she’s in good hands. What you need are prayers and miracles.” Debra died after one week, on the 11th and buried without much delay, in the Jewish tradition, on the 13th.

The funeral was an out of body experience. We were numb, not even realizing that there were more than 600 people attending. The funerals of young people bring out family, family friends, friends of the deceased, and untold numbers of acquaintances. People approached us not knowing what to say. One young man, however, related that “when Debra arrived at a party or gathering, she lit up the room.” His name was Skippy, and I didn’t really know him, however he left a lasting memory.

What is most surprising is the behavior of other people. No one is prepared to deal with the death of a child. A well meaning friend started off a conversation with “I know how you feel”.I had to remind him that he didn’t know how I felt unless he could read my mind. A women simply said “I have no words” — probably the best statement anyone could make at the time. A simple “I’m sorry” is best.

The real difficulty is afterwards. You can immerse yourself in work, or household chores, however the scar never really heals. A special song on the radio, a rainbow, a celebration of any sort can spark a memory. Although 25 years have gone by, the memories come back often. You are never really prepared for them, and yes, the tears still flow.

We joined an organization of people who had experienced the death of a child. After a year or so of listening to a new family or two each month, tell their tale of woe, I had enough. There are no magic formulas to get through this. A strong marriage and support of friends and family are the only things that work.

The people who were there for us then are still there, and we have all been through life’s surprises together. Our Congregational Rabbi was there for us in 1989 and is still with us, even through the recent death of his own child.

Sadly we are not alone in the world of parents who have buried a child. There are more of us out there than we ever thought.

Interestingly, I was told, way back in 1989, by a man older and wiser than I, that “in all the languages of the world there is no word for parents who have buried a child.” If a child’s parents die, the child is an orphan. If you bury a spouse, you are a widow or widower. Truly there is no word for those of us who have buried a child.

Len Greenberg, a resident of Monroe Township, worked as a salesman in the shoe industry before his retirement.

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