Sunday, March 2, 2014

He's No Angel

I am a member of what is called the Bereavement Community. The reason is clear: My little boy Jacob died from childhood cancer at the age of two and a half.

I am both firmly a part of the group of people who've lost a child, and a little outside of it. I am outside of it, because unlike many of the other children who have died, Jacob is not an angel.

It is through this network of people that I've discovered that when children die, many of them become angels. People have a special way of talking about when the children died. They like to say that on the day the child died, they earned their angel wings. Everyone who has lost a child has this terrible anniversary of when the child died. If the child became an angel after they died, the anniversary date is called the Angel Date. Sometimes it is called the Angelversary.

You might wonder how I know that Jacob is not an angel. The truth is that I don't know for sure. But this is what I think.

I would be with a bunch of people whose children died and they would be talking about their angels. It got me wondering about Jacob. I would try to imagine him as an angel with all of the other kids. There was something about it that just didn't fit with what I knew about him.

For one thing, in spite of his short life, Jacob was a fully nuanced person. Jacob had stellar qualities. His ability to socialize with everyone, his smile, his sense of empathy and humor, his love of books, dancing and music and his bravery are all things I like to remember. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Jacob could be very willful and stubborn, liked to hurl books and toys, and was right on track when it came to challenging toddler behaviors. I like to remember this too.

That doesn't mean he couldn't seem angelic. He could. When Jacob was asleep, he seemed angelic to me. At all other times, no.

Although it seems like most people's children became angels when they died, there are many who didn't.

I've been talking about the bereavement community like it is this one big group of people. This is not the case. It's made up of different cogs, like a wheel. The different groups can be separate and also overlap.

Through an intricate set of circumstances I found myself spending a lot of time with women of orthodox Jewish faith who had lost children. I loved spending time with my friends from this community. As it turns out, none of the observant women's children were angels. That is because as a rule, they don't believe in angels at all. Some of the women believed that their children were now studying Torah with Hashem.

This was an interesting concept to me and an easier one to picture. It was comforting to think of God or a God-like presence teaching Jacob scholarly things and taking care of him. I imagined Jacob making mischief and a benign and fatherly rabbinical person gently re-directing him. I also imagined Jacob to be one of the youngest kids there, because of how old he was when he died. The idea didn't stick, but it was more plausible than the angels.

I'm an excellent listener at support groups.  But sometimes I say something that might get me into a little bit of hot water with other people. Like the time that I said how much I hate Childhood Cancer Awareness month. Now I am sharing that Jacob is not an angel. And also, that Jacob is not studying the Torah.

If your child passed away, the first thing I want to say is that I am very sorry. That is a horrible loss and every such loss is like a universe onto itself. If the child who died is now an angel, that sounds absolutely beautiful. The child will not be lonely because there are so many angels. The child being an angel will be something you can share with lots of other folks.

When I say that Jacob is not an angel, I am not questioning that your child has angel wings. The way I'd describe it is of one of difference. It's a little like when two moms are together and one of their children died from cancer after an illness and the other died suddenly and less expectedly. You have a lot in common in spite of this major difference.

This is how I feel about your kid being an angel and my kid not. It's a difference. That's all.

It is also possible that the reason that Jacob is not an angel is that my definition is too narrow to include him. You may have a very different angel in mind when talking about your angel. It may be that I am too literal, trying to picture Jacob flying around, like a valentine card illustration.

Jacob did not earn any angel wings. He did earn the never-ending love of his dad and I and lots of other people too. He accomplished this by being himself. When he died, he remained Jacob. Just Jacob.

Jacob doesn't have an Angel Date. He has the anniversary of when he died. I realize that is quite a mouthful. It might not sound nice. But little by little, I'm learning to live with it.


  1. I do always hate when people say after a child died "God Must have needed another Angel" - I want to smack them and say "God is God, he can just create another angel, he doesn't need to take children!!!" (and a priest once said "no, they aren't angels....angels are different than people)

    I do say "Angel Alexander" and that is what comforts me. But if it doesn't work for you, then that is fine too. I have learned there is no wrong or right way. Just want works best for you.

    1. Thank you Nancy. Fortunately I haven't heard the God must have needed an angel justification. That is a presumptuous thing to say to someone. I appreciate the thoughts you've written.