Lisa Fliegel
Trauma Specialist
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That 6-year-old boy kicking and screaming

'How do we talk to children amidst this cavernous loss?' That's what the blue-shirted counselors in the evacuees hotel ask me
These children are not only symbols of national tragedy, they’re also children. (iStock)
These children are not only symbols of national tragedy, they’re also children. (iStock)

The news came: The one we thought was missing was found dead. The father, the brother, the uncle, the friend. He is them, in the blue youth movement shirt, smiling. The pictures of who he was in life before they found him lifeless.

“How do we talk to children amidst this cavernous loss?” That’s what the blue-shirted counselors ask me. For months, they have stood by these anxious, fitful, frightened children who kick and scream — fighting the inevitable news that their little bodies know will come: No, daddy isn’t a hostage. He isn’t missing. His body was found.

“Don’t be anxious,” I tell the counselors, as they head to the site. “You have been there for months. You know these children. You will know what to do at this funeral.” I know these counselors, I know the little boy, and the hotel that has been their home far from their real homes.

It’s 3 a.m. on the East Coast when, from my bed, I strain to stretch the distance between here and Eilat. A month ago, I left my post: I was deployed as an embedded trauma therapist with the evacuees of Kibbutz Nir Oz and Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak. I’ve been in this out-of-place place ever since coming back to Boston.

Now, I am not a still person. I pace and fidget. There’s another me though, who sat in stillness among the Black Sabbath October 7 survivors in their hotels. Then the invisible churning was in me as my cells, muscles, and lungs-breath made an effort to match the rhythm of their grief, to stay with them as they ventured out into the moonscape of resilience, finding their footing in the zero gravity of loss.

I have seen the 6-year-old boy kick and scream. A one-little-man protest movement against the father gone missing since that day. I have seen the tenacious youth counselors hold him tight and calm him, embrace him to protect the other children. To protect themselves from this bounty of anger, this striking out against the inevitable. Day in, day out, hold the grief and breathe. Find a path to calm. Reflect: what can be done?

The scene changes. Thousands will now come, and eulogies will be delivered. As the body is laid into a dark hole dug in the earth, a boy of 6 observes many ways to grieve, to cry, and to question the unfairness. “I think he has not had the language of grief and mourning,” I tell the blue shirts. “Now the country, the comforters, are showing him the ways to mourn. He no longer needs to be the whirlwind of chaos. Maybe now he can be still.”

Illustrative: Mourners remove the Israeli flag from the coffin of Yosef Vahav, 65, during his funeral in Beit Guvrin, Israel, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. Vahav was killed by Hamas militants on Oct. 7, in Kibbutz Nir Oz. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

But still, we are frightened. Together, we are anxious. Will the crowds and cameras send him into a tailspin? Will knowledge and certainty propel his anger to a point of no return? We’d all seen his daily rages at the hotel in Eilat. I thought of my mother’s funeral. She was honored at her passing, loved and revered. She was my mother, loved and revered, but not mine to grieve. She belonged to the public that she served.

“Remember guys,” I added, “when you are at the funeral, these children are not only symbols of grief, trauma, and national tragedy; they’re not only symbols of what’s been lost. They are also children, simply children who need to play, to laugh, to cry when they are ready.

After the ceremony the family sat in the event hall and the comforters came in with their condolences. Suddenly, the 6-year-old announced: “Look! The blue shirts are here, how wonderful!” He rushed to them, flung his arms into their embraces, and said, “Let’s go!” and off they went to play.

Those blue-shirted counselors had to split themselves in half that day: the intuitive counselor, present, sturdy, comforting – but they were also themselves, the grieving-angry at the desertion of our country, seething in the pain of the loss of life, the unfairness of things. Two parts of one person who has to say hello and goodbye all at once.

People ask how I make it through the constant upending upset that is trauma. By celebrating the transcendent moments, I tell them. The moment when a little boy looks up from his unimaginable grief into the faces of loving counselors who take him by the hand and say, “Here we are at the playground! You choose what happens next.”

About the Author
Lisa Fliegel is a Boston-based trauma specialist and American-Israeli writer who has worked internationally, including in Ireland, Israel and Palestine. She is a special clinical consultant to The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, a grassroots non-profit serving survivors of victims of homicide.
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