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Sherri Mandell
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A nation in trauma: Guard your strength

8 moves to protect yourself, including the importance of connecting with others: Call your friends and family, and help keep anxiety at bay
Large teddy bears painted with red paint and carrying photographs of the children held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Dizengoff Square. October 25, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Large teddy bears painted with red paint and carrying photographs of the children held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Dizengoff Square. October 25, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

We are living in traumatic times, and we are in trauma, experiencing great pain and national mourning. But people have a lot of misconceptions about trauma. I want to share some of the things I’ve learned about trauma as a bereaved mother and as a pastoral counselor. My son Koby was murdered by terrorists with his friend Yosef Ish Ran in 2001, when the boys were 13 and 14 years old. In 2002, we created The Koby Mandell Foundation, which runs Camp Koby and other support programs for bereaved families. We have worked with hundreds of families whose loved ones were murdered by terrorists.

  1. Most people will not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD includes flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and the inability to function in ordinary life. While it is normal now to have nightmares and disrupted sleep and difficulty focusing, that behavior has to continue for a long time in order to be diagnosed as PTSD — i.e., until after the war is over. Right now, most of us are not functioning well because we are under attack and the murders and kidnapping that have occurred are nightmares. But if you are still functioning, and if you have not witnessed the trauma firsthand, you probably will not get PTSD.

For example, one summer, we tested for PTSD at Camp Koby. Only one percent of the children whose family members had been murdered by terrorists suffered from PTSD. That doesn’t mean they don’t suffer, but suffering from trauma is not the same as suffering from PTSD.

On the other hand, bystander trauma and post-trauma-stress disorder do exist. You can experience PTSD by watching the horror on your screen. People keep sending me videos and I try not to watch them because viewing violent images is not healthy for the soul. It’s not healthy for children and it’s not healthy for adults. Yes, care about what has happened. But don’t plunge yourself into the horror of the experience. You can feel and help without being traumatized. Be careful to limit your viewing of the atrocities.

  1. Post traumatic growth can also be a result of trauma. Post traumatic growth means finding a new enhanced meaning in life. You can see this happening all around us. The goodness, the chesed, that is sweeping this country is enormous. People are pitching in to help in any way they can. This phenomenon of goodness is post-traumatic growth on a nation-wide scale.
  2. To deal with feeling out of control and overwhelmed, it’s a good idea as much as possible to root yourself in routine — what you normally do — taking care of children, working, eating healthily, sleeping, not spending hours watching atrocities. My friend asked her son who is in the army what she could do to help him. He said, “Do things that make you happy.” These acts of ordinary life can become an affirmation of the power of life. So give. Bake. Bake challah for soldiers. Help the soldiers. Help return the captives. Help make your community safer and stronger. Pray.
  3. The enemy wants to shatter us, wants us to be in shambles and to feel disempowered and disconnected and terrified. So one of the most important things we can do right now is to connect to others. Be in touch with others, reach out to those you think may be struggling. Call your friends and family. A real call, not just a WhatsApp message. Accept your fear but don’t dwell in it. Try to do positive things that will keep you from drowning in the anxiety.
  4. You don’t have to be strong. After my son was killed, a lot of people said, “Be strong.” I thought that was crazy. Why would I be strong? I was suffering and crying. But one young man said to me: Guard your strength. I loved that. Yes, figure out what your strengths are. And make sure that you use them and protect them. For example, I’m a writer so I make sure to have time in my day devoted to writing. And I’m writing about the war and resilience.

So guard your energy. If you need to rest, go ahead. Again protect yourself and your children from watching the horrors on the screen. Keep yourself as whole as you can.

  1. The words for sadness and design in Hebrew are similar (etzev). Sadness must be given shape. Make sure to create, to dance, to yell, to write, to draw, to transform your sadness into some shape that can hold it.
  2. In every suffering, there is a summons. What are you being called on to do now? What is the collective summons for our nation? Work for unity. Work to rebuild. Work for victory against our enemies.
  3. Don’t assume what somebody else is feeling. I’ve had almost a dozen people who mean well say to me: This must be extremely triggering for you. Let me decide how I feel. Ask me how I’m feeling. Ask what it’s like to lose a son to terror and then be faced with a war and so much grief and atrocity. But don’t trigger me by assuming that I’m triggered.

We’re all different. We all have different coping styles. But assume that you will be okay, because most of us will be.

About the Author
Sherri Mandell is co-director of the Koby Mandell Foundation which runs programs for bereaved families in Israel. She is the author of the book "The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration." Her book, "The Blessing of a Broken Heart," won a National Jewish Book Award in 2004. She can be reached at sherri@kobymandell.org
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