A Shocking Loss
My son Aaron Hirschhorn died in a boating accident in Miami bay on March 28, 2022. He was a month shy of 43 years old. He left behind his wife Karine and three children, August, Joel and Elle. Aaron was a wonderful man: energetic, lively, intelligent, an entrepreneur who had started two companies and was rising to the top of his game. He was a loving and loyal son.
His death shook my world to its core. On April 29, 2022, the day before Aaron’s 44th birthday, my community of family and friends attended a performance of a musical I wrote, titled Grieving Aaron (Grieving Aaron: The musical) at the Venice Island Theater in Philadelphia. Here is my brief story about this experience and its role in opening me up to hope.
I am a management consultant and economist who thrives on analytic thinking. Yet in response to Aaron’s death, I found untapped sources of creativity within me. Shortly after he died, I wrote poems about his dying and its impact on me. I then self-published them in a small book titled Grieving Aaron. That summer, without apparent prompting, I started writing music in the spirit of the showtunes and ballads.
Writing a Musical to Cope
I wrote lyrics that drew on memories of happy moments, my hopes for my other son, and the prospect that I could live with the pain as well as the pleasure of my remaining years. I had the good fortune of having a brother, a physician, who is also a published poet and a sister who is a singer-songwriter. They and a close friend gave me feedback on my poems and songs.
I was also blessed with a loving daughter-in-law, the wife of my other son, Daniel, who was wise in all things theatrical. My unprompted writing and these connections gave rise to the idea that I could actually write a musical. I titled Grieving Aaron, which dramatized and further developed the poems and music I had composed.
It’s sensible to ask, what impelled me to undertake such a project? My answer I’m sure echoes what thinkers far wiser than me have proposed. Death is ineffable. This means that death feels like an injustice to me.
I don’t have the religious conviction that our souls continue. I wish I did. Born through the most improbable of accidents, I was placed on this good earth to do my best to meet my needs and the needs of those I love, to experience the extremes of joy and terror, only to disappear. What gives me hope, purpose and meaning, and always did, is the experience of continuity through the work I’ve accomplished, the effects of my efforts on others, and most importantly raising children who in turn will bring their children into the world.
This made my world feel orderly. It offered me a sense of continuity despite life’s fragility. My son’s death, any child’s death, overturned this natural order of the universe. As I said, it shook me to the core.
Benefits of Writing a Musical
Creative work of the kind I undertook had three effects on me. First, it helped me master the trauma of my son’s death. It is as if I was saying to the fates and the furies, “You might try to destroy me but I can respond with agency and create something that restores order in my world.” In fact, as I wrestled to bring order out of an unfinished melody, poem, or dramatic scene and infused this order with some measure of delight, I countered my sense of helplessness.
Second, this creative work was my gambit to sustain my personal continuity even after I passed. I am not a Shakespeare. But writing a musical and offering it here through this website is a way in which I separate myself from my work so that at least potentially, it has a life of its own, beyond mine, and is valued by people that I will never know, now and into the future. Of course, this result is not guaranteed. But the effort itself gives me hope.
Third, writing a play and mounting its performance, connected me with wonderful and talented people. I worked with my director, the cast, my daughter-in-law who produced the play, my siblings and song-writing friend, and most importantly the family and friends who attended the performance. Religions have always created communal ceremonies for marking out someone’s death. In my Jewish tradition it is called a “Shiva,” among the Irish it is the “Wake.” The performance was my personal ceremony. It connected me to the people I knew and loved. By attending they told me, “You’re not alone and we mourn with you.” Death has the final word but not the only answer.
Enacting the Arc of Grief
The musical enacts my arc of grief. It begins at the moment my wife Marla and I learn of Aaron’s death. It concludes at a moment of reconciliation when memories are enough to remind us of the miracle of his existence. Each of the characters in the musical, Karine, Aaron’s widow, Marla, Daniel, our other son, Jennie, my daughter-in-law, and all my grandchildren played an essential role in the journey of my Grieving Aaron.
I hope the musical will help parents who have lost their children make sense of, and metabolize, both their grief and their yearning. It is my fondest wish that it will connect them to the widest community of grieving parents. Through this learning, I, they, we, can recognize that we are not alone. This keeps me open to hope.
Larry lives in Philadelphia with his wife Marla. He has 5 grandchildren. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Read more by Larry: Inscribing a Headstone: The Importance of Tradition – Open to Hope