It has only been three short weeks since our community was dealt the crushing blow of the petirah of Miriam Holman, a’h, and the reality still seems impossible to absorb. Miriam was young, vibrant, effervescent, and so full of promise. How could she be gone? To all those who knew her, the loss is searing.
Miriam was just like everyone else, yet at the same time unique in her accomplishments and personal growth. She looked like any other Bais Yaakov graduate—pretty, polished, put-together—but her sensitivity to others and her emunah set her apart. For Miriam, part of this sensitivity was innate. But part of it grew out of the pain she experienced at the loss of her beloved sister Nechama Liba. Miriam’s time with her older sister Nechama was short. She passed away over 13 years ago, when Miriam was only 8 years old. Thus Miriam learned at a tender age what it means to lose a loved one.
After Nechama passed away in 2004, the Holmans attended a bereavement weekend for parents who had lost children. However, they noticed that there were no programs for children who had lost siblings.
The following year, in 2005, Glen and his wife, Saguite, decided to start a yearly bereavement retreat which is usually held at Camp Simcha in the early spring. Approximately 40 families attend the weekend, whose goal is to bring together these families who all share the common tragedy of the loss of a child. The weekends are replete with gourmet food, 24-hour babysitting for the younger of hundreds of children, roundtable discussions, fun, and, most importantly, heartfelt bonding. These are just some of the ways these three-day weekends offer broken hearts not only a temporary reprieve but also a sense of community.
Preparations for each retreat begin months in advance, when families are invited to attend. How many volunteers are needed this year? Which families need a crib? Which arts-and-crafts project are we doing with the 8–10-year-old girls? Who else would be a good fit for table 4 at the Friday night meal? Did we arrange Shabbos-morning entertainment for the younger boys? How are we doing the kiddush this year? The questions mount as the deadline approaches.
By the time the actual weekend arrives, details have been worked out and the bonding begins. As Nelly Sebag, one volunteer, describes, “The women usually stay up until 3:00 a.m. talking. They come with photo albums of their deceased children because oftentimes they are only comfortable showing them to people who they feel will truly understand them. They show pictures and tell stories; it’s a forum that they never have anywhere else. The kids do the same thing—they talk and meet others who experienced similar tragedies, helping them feel less isolated in their pain. They build lifelong relationships.”
Then comes the grand siyum. Right after Shabbos, everyone sits in a circle and there’s a siyum Mishnayos during which the name of each child who passed away is read.
“We always make sure to have some crazy entertainment at the melaveh malkah to ease the serious mood that the siyum brings. We’ve had skiers riding on trampolines, BMX bikers, an incredible magic show.” So much good came out of the retreats. For many families it was a turning point towards their healing.
It wasn’t enough for Miriam to be a participant at the retreat. “Four years ago, Miriam began running it. She became my partner, essentially the COO. She ran it,” says Glen. No task was too big or too small for her to handle. She spent hours on end agonizing over every detail with her father to make sure that “this year’s retreat would be the best ever!”
“The retreat was everything to her,” recalls her teacher and mentor, Shoshana Jaeger. “It was so important for her to help these families who were in pain, especially the children.” Miriam’s primary objective was to increase the focus on the siblings, especially helping the girls there connect.
Just last year, Miriam implemented a new idea—the collective photo album. Each family was given a page to dedicate to the child they lost. They could submit pictures of their child and add whatever they wanted others on the retreat to know about their child. The goal of the album was for parents to learn about each other’s children and connect to each other through the album. It was very important to Miriam that every child be included. She worried that if a child was not in the album, their parents would ultimately regret it.
Miriam’s sensitivity to the children on the retreat was a reflection of what she herself had gone through. She didn’t just make sure to know every child. She would facilitate relationships between them so that those friendships would last into the future.
Despite the success of the retreat, Miriam was not satisfied. Something was nagging at her. “The retreat is great, but we need year-round programs for these children,” she insisted. True, Miriam would sometimes gather the girls from the retreat for a night out at a restaurant, or drive with a few of them to a wedding or other simcha. But she wanted organized year-round programs that would help these suffering siblings.
So “COO” Miriam and her father met with Chai Lifeline this past summer and pitched the idea of a year-round bereavement program.
Recognizing that Chai Lifeline’s budget is squeezed in many directions, Miriam and Glen made them an offer they couldn’t refuse—they would raise the money.
Chai Lifeline agreed. Miriam was charged with structuring a year-round bereavement program for siblings, to include local support groups, barbecues, melaveh malkas, parents’ panels, art therapy, and other events and services to help people who have suffered the worst possible tragedy.
Miriam began the process, but, sadly, she passed away before she could see it to fruition. A campaign has been started to bring Miriam’s dream to life. Please support this generously by donating at https://www.gofundme.com/miriamholman.