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A Legacy Interrupted: Where Do You Turn When You Can’t Heal Yourself?

Barry Strum (left) and June Ridgway (right), the Director of AgeWell Cincinnati, discuss the painful challenges parents face in the aftermath of losing a child.
Barry Strum (left) and June Ridgway (right), the Director of AgeWell Cincinnati, discuss the painful challenges parents face in the aftermath of losing a child.

When Barry Strum’s children were little, he didn’t spend much time thinking about his family lineage or his Jewish legacy. However, he does remember one day, in particular, when the strong familial connection from his father, Benjamin Strum, to his son, Benjamin Strum, came through in a profound way. Like any memory, it would come to soften and lose clarity with time. That is, until years later, when the younger Benjamin unexpectedly died in his sleep at the age of 38, and that day from decades earlier took on a deeper significance.

 

As his son and daughter grew up, Strum, an avid photographer, was always sure to capture the precious stages of their childhood. “Benjamin was named after my father,” Strum recently recalled, sitting in the living room of his College Hill home. “He was probably around nine months old, and he was still in his sleeper, so for some reason I just put a little black yarmulke on him.” Strum chuckled. “I looked in my tallit (prayer shawl) bag, my father's tallit bag, actually, which I had in my closet, and in the bottom of the bag, is a little pair of tzitzit (tassels) that a baby would wear. So I put them on Benjamin and sat him on the table, and I just got these marvelous shots where the whole lineage was just coming through on his face. It really knocked me out.” 

 

When Benjamin (younger) died in the early morning hours of July 9, 2018, he had temporarily been living at home with his parents—in the house he had grown up in. Benjamin and his business partners had been preparing to launch a brand new restaurant, and he needed some flexibility as he transitioned from one Cincinnati apartment to another. Sadly, this meant it was Benjamin’s own parents who found him, lying peacefully but unresponsive in his childhood bed, beyond medical help. 

 

“He was a very personable, just an incredibly personable young guy,” Strum said, with a proud, fatherly look in his eyes. “He had a special skill of making all those around him feel welcome and at home. So, in addition to being brokenhearted, I felt like a piece of me was gone, you know, and it was just, the whole thing just was sort of completely out of balance.”

 

While Strum and his wife, Holly, benefitted from the tremendous outpouring of love and support they got from their friends, it didn’t take long for them to realize that something more would be needed to help them get through this unexpected crisis. “We were absolutely in a state of, not just shock and grief, but total disorientation,” Strum said. “When this happened, my wife Holly and I realized that we needed to have some help, not just in terms of support in the moment, but in terms of providing some sort of a path through grief.”

 

Their search for healing led them to AgeWell Cincinnati, the central solution that links older adults, their family members, friends, and caregivers to community resources in Jewish Cincinnati. The Strums met with the Director of AgeWell Cincinnati, June Ridgway, who talked with them at length and immediately set to work making phone calls on their behalf. 

 

Among the critical contacts to reach out to the Strums following Ridgway’s inquiries was Circle of Friends. This bimonthly bereavement group meets at Adath Israel Congregation, and is supported by their membership and staff. It didn’t take long for the grieving couple to realize that Circle of Friends would be able to give them the help they so desperately needed. 

 

“It is a group of lay people who have experienced a death, spousal death for the most part, but in other cases, losing children,” Barry shared. “You can say what you want and feel very confident that everything stays in the room, so people feel free to express themselves, whether it's emotional, or it's anger, or it's whatever it may be. We got a lot of value out of that, and we still do. We still go to them.”

 

While the grief the Strums feel remains, the understanding and compassion they have been shown during the Circle of Friends sessions, and the newly formed friendships they’ve developed, have helped them feel that each new day is a little bit better than the one before. “When someone is in crisis, whether it's emotional or otherwise, they are looking for things that will give them a quick sense of some relief,” Strum added. “It’s just such an empathetic group.”

 

Strum also appreciates Ridgway, and the work she did, and does, with AgeWell Cincinnati. The two continue to stay in touch, meeting periodically over coffee at the Mayerson JCC. While Strum hopes he never revisits the pain and anguish that brought him to Ridgway in the first place, he finds comfort in knowing that she and her team are there.