The greatest tragedy a parent can experience is the loss of a child. Especially when the death is the result of a sudden, tragic event, the searing pain of loss and the unanswerable questions that result from it torment the parents and family of the child.

On the eve of Passover, 1988, a six-year-old girl named Miriam Gaerman was killed in a car accident in Berkeley, California. Following her death, her parents wrote a long letter to the Rebbe, seeking some kind of explanation for this tragic event. They were particularly distressed by the feeling that their daughter’s untimely passing meant that she did not have a chance to fulfill her role on earth. They also felt that they did not have an opportunity to mourn her properly, because, according to Jewish law, the festival of Passover ended the shivah mourning period (usually observed for one week) after only a few hours.

The Rebbe responded to both their concerns:

It goes without saying that no one can possibly interpret the ways of G‑d with any degree of certainty….

[That said,] all souls that come down at this time [of history] are continuing previous incarnations in order to complete (totally or partially) what they did not complete previously. And [even though, generally speaking, man is meant to live 70, 80 years,1 etc.], those who pass on [at a young age,] before their obligation to fulfill the commandments, came into this world [only] to finish the number of years that they lacked….

If Miriam needed to finish the number of years she lacked in this world and then go immediately into Paradise, her parents should try not to be saddened, but take comfort in the knowledge that on this Passover she was in Gan Eden. And for this reason, they could find true joy on the holy day, according to the Torah of Truth.2

There is a famous Chasidic story that exemplifies this concept of a short life lived in order to complete a rectification from a previous reincarnation. A couple who had lost their two-year-old son came to the Baal Shem Tov and poured out their hearts to him. The Baal Shem Tov told them that their child had a special soul that had already been in this world. However, it needed to return for a few years in order to achieve a tikkun, a rectification. When the tikkun was complete, the soul could return to its source.3

Along similar lines, a woman who had suffered a number of miscarriages once wrote to the Rebbe seeking his guidance and blessing. The Rebbe responded that there are some souls whose sole mission in this world is to fulfill a deficit remaining from a previous incarnation. In particular, the Rebbe continued, there are some souls that were conceived in circumstances considered by Jewish law to be less than ideal and, in order to achieve spiritual completion, return to this world for the sole purpose of being conceived in purity! Once this brief mission on earth is completed these pure souls return to the World of Truth, having achieved the spiritual perfection they previously lacked.4

The Sages of the Talmud dealt with the loss of a child from a different angle. Rather than focusing on considerations of a soul’s destiny, they looked at the nature of parenthood itself—and found comfort there. What follows is a discussion between Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and his disciples after the loss of his son:

“Comfort me,” requested [Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai] of his disciples.

Rabbi Eliezer spoke up. “Adam lost a son too. Nevertheless, he found consolation.”

But Rabban Yochanan only retorted, “Why do you add to my sorrow the sorrow of someone else?”

Rabbi Yehoshua spoke in turn: “Job had sons and daughters, and he lost them all. Nevertheless, he found consolation.”

Again Rabban Yochanan only answered, “Why do you add to my sorrow the sorrow of someone else?”

Then Rabbi Yosse said, “Aaron had two exceptional sons who both died on the same day. Yet Aaron was comforted.”

This, too, Rabban Yochanan rejected with the same words.

Rabbi Shimon then rose and spoke: “King David lost a son and was nevertheless comforted.”

Rabban Yochanan reacted as before.

Then Rabbi Elazar ben Arach spoke: “Allow me to tell you this story: A king entrusted one of his subjects with a precious object to keep safe for him, and the man worried incessantly, for he had to return this object to the king undamaged. Only when he returned the precious thing to the king intact was he relieved of his anxiety. You, my teacher, are in the same situation. You had a son who has left this world without sin. Let it be a consolation that you have returned to G‑d in a perfect state what He entrusted to you.”

Elazar, you have comforted me!” Rabban Yochanan said.5

Bruria, the wife of Rabbi Meir, adopted the same attitude when her two sons died suddenly on a Shabbat. She laid their bodies in the bedroom, and when her husband came home, she posed to him what appeared to be a question in Jewish law: “A while ago, someone entrusted an object stone to me for safekeeping. Now the owner has come back to reclaim. Should I return it to him?”

Rabbi Meir immediately replied that she must return the precious stone without hesitation. Bruria then led him into the bedroom.6

In his book, Rabbi Vorst concludes that this is how he and his wife must look at the tragic loss of their own son: “that we have not been deprived of Boruch; we ‘only’ gave him back.”7

This attitude also helped Rabbi Vorst to deal compassionately with the woman whose car struck and killed his son. When she came to the house of shivah, he praised her courage and tried to put her at ease by telling her that he did not blame her, since “everything is destined and by Divine Providence foreseen and arranged by G‑d.”

“Even if she had not driven too fast,” Rabbi Vorst reflects in his book, “Baruch still would not have been with us anymore. For evidently, his time had come.”8