Sometimes it’s not forever. Burying a child.

Liel at Shutaf in Dec, 2008In honor and memory of Liel Naomi Liben, z”l, 1997-2012.
Every day when the bus pulled up, a foghorn emerged from the window. “Kachuga” it rang, annoying the neighbors and irritating my mother.  Partially fascinated and partially humiliated at such a hello, we rushed out the door – I was in junior high school, and Jessica, my younger sister, was a grade schooler. As we clambered onto the school bus, there he’d be, grinning maniacally. Michael Liben: full of laughter, good music (only Beatles though) and good cheer.

Our parents were friends, and we were friends too. We saw each other on Shabbatot in synagogue and for two, fun-filled years, traveled to school together – he went to Brandeis and I went to Hillel. The schools, which faced each other across Frost Lane in Lawrence, NY, couldn’t cooperate to create a merged high school because of differing religious philosophies but at least we could share busing.

We stayed in touch sporadically in adulthood until I moved to Israel with my family in 2006 and bumped back into Michael on a more regular basis. His daughter, Liel, came to Shutaf early on after the program was founded, and Michael filmed and edited our first video in 2008. Watch it and you’ll see Liel and her friend, Morane (minute 0:55 and 1:58), having fun at Hanukkah Camp 2008.

Michael and I were living parallel lives, raising our children with special needs – he, with Liel and me, with Akiva. Together with his wife Leora and their two other children, Idan and Sapir, they faced not insignificant challenges, coping as they did with Liel’s heart issues and surgeries, as well as a diagnosis of autism and other developmental stuff.

When we imagine ourselves as parents, we usually picture the ordinary and honorable badges of parenthood – sleepless nights, terrible twos, parent-teacher conferences, and the gloomy teen years – combined with those imagined moments of parental pleasure and maybe standing under the chuppa (marriage canopy) one day. Even the smaller things like “not becoming a doctor,” or “won’t be an A-student,” are mercifully forgotten in the face of an infant’s beauty, a child’s innocence and an older kid’s maturation and social success.

As for the really scary stuff, like disability and special needs, emotional stress and mental instability, chronic illness and worse, death, we push it away, hoping it won’t come knocking on our door. Who wouldn’t? We’re not stupid of course, we’re human, and we put those scary thoughts away unless we absolutely need to deal with them.

Michael’s daughter, Liel, died on Monday night at age 15.5, after a major seizure a few days earlier. A tragic and relatively rare occurrence, it happens, and like all things related to epilepsy is little understood and not completely preventable.

I was speaking with someone today about her death and they started to say, “well…” and I interrupted them and said, “don’t say anything about how the family’s life will be easier because of her death.” Maybe on the outside it will seem so – no long trips back and forth to Nahariya each week to pick up Liel and bring her home for Shabbat, less laundry, less finding childcare when you want to go out for dinner or take a vacation, less doctor visits and social services follow-up – I can go on and on and on, but there will be no ease, certainly not initially. The hole dug into one’s innards, into one’s kishkes, by a child with special needs such as Liel’s, the hole dug by her presence, by her needs, by her life, by her smiles and hugs is probably deeper and more complex in its structure than any other hole dug – I would say – even by the two other children in the family.

And that takes nothing away from one’s other children. Nothing. I fiercely love my two big boys – each of my children occupies an important place in my life, in our lives as parents but Akiva has a particular hold on me, for better and for worse. Liel’s absence will be huge, for her parents, and her siblings too, who must not be forgotten, especially in this early period of grief. And that hole is an amazing hole, filled as it is with years of hard work and devotion, love and laughter, fear and resentment, guilt and amazement. It’s an abyss really, that will take time and healing to soften its edges and fill its gaping interior.

We’re not promised a rose garden when we decide to parent. Sometimes it’s messy, really messy but that doesn’t mean we still can’t be grateful for the chance to do it and do it the best we can. Gratitude is such an important emotion, even at a desperately sad time such as this. I’m sad for Michael and Leora, and for Liel’s siblings, Idan and Sapir. I’m sad for me because Liel’s death makes me think about Akiva’s future and that’s another hole that gapes open, wide and frighteningly. Hopefully, we’ll always fill it with love, laughter, good health and pride in all of his achievements.

May her memory always be for a blessing.
מן השמים תנוחמו


  • sarah January 2, 2013 15:46

    I have never met the Liben’s but my heart goes out to them….I remember sitting in ICU for a month waiting for Josh to come out of a coma induced to stop a major on-going seizure. There are no words one can ever have for a parent who buries a child. G-d grant them comfort.

    • Beth Steinberg January 2, 2013 16:04

      Yeah, I figured you’d get it. Thx for reading.

  • Marne January 2, 2013 16:41

    On the way to the funeral, I said to the friend taking me, that I really don’t want to hear one more person saying, “it may be for the better.” I’m sure many are thinking it, but they can keep it to themselves. I’m sure there are a lot of conflicting emotions going on with Michael, Leora, Idan, and Sapir, but the death of a child, not matter what problems or challenges there were, is still the death of a child. When my grandmother’s health was failing, I became her legal guardian and primary caretaker. It was a heavy burden that I carried but did with a full heart. When she died the burden was lifted but the hole left behind was deep and full of pain and loss.

    • Beth Steinberg January 2, 2013 16:53

      Right on sista. But people feel uncomfortable and unsure. There’s a lot of guilt and fear about such topics.

  • Barat Ellman January 2, 2013 17:34

    What a beautiful essay Beth. Thank you.

  • David Hilfstein January 2, 2013 19:55

    beautiful beth, i cried….thank you for letting us into a sliver of your world!

  • Michael Liben January 2, 2013 21:42

    thank you, Beth. So ffar, Liel, in her final gesture, has geven life to at least three others with lungs, liver and at least one kidney. I expect more news on this tomorrow. She continues to be a blessing in so many ways. – Michael

    • Beth Steinberg January 3, 2013 00:33

      Thx Michael. So glad to hear that you were able to do organ donations – I think that’s important.

  • Natasha Cooper-Benisty January 3, 2013 04:50

    Beth, this was such a beautiful piece. Although I do not have any special needs children myself, I know many people who do. I’ve always thought that the loss of a child is the most terrible and difficult thing that a person can endure. It doesn’t matter whether the child had special needs or not, no one should outlive their child. Thanks again for your words and your thoughts as a special needs parent. Everyone should hear them.

  • Natalie Sundberg January 3, 2013 22:53

    I share your grief as only one who has shared such a loss can do. It’s been 32 years since I buried my son. It’s not any easier – but it has become bearable. And we go on day by day, minute by minute. May you receive the strength you need. Tali Sundberg

    • Beth Steinberg January 4, 2013 15:44

      Thx Natasha and Tali for responding.

  • Joyce Shapiro Gordon January 8, 2013 15:37

    I met Liel 7 years ago when traveling to Israel with Rabbi Liben and Temple Israel friends. My heart goes out to you Michael, Leora and the rest of your family. You are in my prayers.

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