Reaching Out Across the Abyss of Grief: Superman Sam

by Carrie Bornstein

My daughter is now 6 ½ years old.

The same age as many of last year’s victims in the tragedy at Newtown.  In the week leading up to its anniversary, I found my mind pulled in all sorts of directions. Thinking about that awful day, imagining the families’ goodbyes on what seemed like a regular morning, knowing that they’ve gone through a full cycle of the year since – birthdays, holidays, summer plans – that were not celebrated how they should have been. There is something cathartic about crying over their names, their faces, their ages.

As a defense mechanism, I have also tried to do anything possible to keep my mind off the details. Why bother?  What good does it do? Parenting is emotional enough as it is – somehow guarding myself seems like the best thing I can do.

Sammy Sommer

Exactly one year after the shooting, when our minds were already in this place, 8-year old “Superman” Sam Sommer lost his battle with cancer.  He was diagnosed at age 6 ½, the same age as my daughter.

His parents, Phyllis and Michael, both rabbis, shared their heart-wrenching journey over the past 18 months.  I met Phyllis when she visited Mayyim Hayyim with a group of Reform rabbis – she’s one of those people you know only from social media and then are fortunate enough to meet her in person.

Thousands of us read their story.  We were saddened to learn of Sam’s diagnosis. We celebrated when he went into remission.  We were devastated when, just a month ago, his leukemia relapsed and no treatment options remained.  And two days ago, we wept reading when Phyllis described picking out the Superman clothing in which Sammy would be buried.  His funeral is today.

Why did we follow so closely? Most of us don’t know the Sommer family personally. Reading their blog brings tears and pain, like reading about other horrors in the world, especially those involving children. So why do we do it?  Isn’t it easier to keep our blinders on, continuing with our day, focusing on the positive?

I’m not sure what it is about human nature that makes us do this, though I think it’s related to my belief that people are ultimately good rather than evil.  We see ourselves in these stories, realizing it could happen to any one of us, and we are desperate to make some sense out of it all.

Of course, nothing about Sam’s illness, or what his parents and three siblings have had to endure makes sense.  But I believe that we’ve followed their story because it’s the one thing we feel like we can do. We don’t know how we can help, except to be there – in person or online – so they’re not alone.

A few months ago, “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” began, raising money for pediatric cancer research in Sam’s honor.  They’ll continue now in his memory. This group will shave their heads at an upcoming gathering of Reform rabbis in March.  Their leadership approached Mayyim Hayyim, asking if we had an immersion ceremony for people preparing to shave their heads for cancer research. It could be used in the future upon cutting one’s hair for Locks of Love.

We didn’t, we said… but we will.  It’s the least we can do.

Thank you, Phyllis and Michael, David, Yael and Solly, for inviting us in to share your pain.

“God strengthen in me the desire to strive for healing. Give me the courage to reach out across the abyss of grief and grasp the hands I need to hold.”

– From “Upon Completing Sh’loshim – A month of Mourning” immersion ceremony

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director. Follow her on twitter @carolinering.

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