The Children of Israel 10: Dealing with Loss

It is nearly impossible for people residing in Western countries to imagine the enormity of the losses experienced by nearly all parts of the Jewish population in Israel. (I do not have enough experience to discuss the Muslim Arab population) When you add to the mainly Ashkenazic unthinkable losses in the Shoah, the Sephardic losses through emigration and immigration, the Ethiopian losses in the desert, the major separations experienced by immigrants from the FSU, the losses due to multiple wars and nearly continuous terror and the disproportionate motor vehicle fatalities, you will find that is the minority of extended families in Israel that have not suffered major losses beyond the natural causes.

If there is one area in which children are different from adults, it is in the psychological response to loss. This fact had achieved nearly universal agreement in the psychoanalytic community (at least in the USA) by the 1980s. From the path-breaking contributions of Martha Wolfenstein (“How is mourning possible?”) and Erna Furman (When a Child Parent Dies) through the eloquent summing up Louise Kaplan (No Voice is Ever Lost) [so far all women] and Vamik Volkan (Linking Objects and Linking Phenomena), we learned that  children under the age of 16  or so are capable of commencing, but not of completing mourning.

Wolfenstein put it plainly. Adolescence is something like a “preparation” for mourning. The adolescent must relinquish, sort of kill, the parental image of the smaller child who is complete and reliable in order to achieve his/her identity towards him/herself and mutuality in relations with other adults. The adolescent mourns this loss, often may appear in an emotional state of mourning (Anna Freud), and comes out of adolescence having “practiced” a kind of mourning that now will be the basis for making mourning “possible” when a parent dies concretely. A child cannot perform this “breaking apart” of the parental image until after adolescence. Before that, the image of the lost parent is held on to and kept as it were alive in the child’s emotional life, because the child still needs such an image to continue to grow.

As a result, a kind of “developmental line” (Anna Freud, Flashman) is created for the orphan and her family. It is a long line, with the need to somehow put adolescence and mourning together. The “family time” line can be completed only when development “comes out the other side,” when the orphan has a child of her own who has reached the age she was when she suffered her loss. Through this relation she can appreciate what a loss would be for her child and was for herself.

I moved to Israel while this professional literature was becoming consolidated. I myself was also being consolidated and had acquired enough clinical experience with children, families and losses to recognize the emotional reality of this literature. I thought that Israel, so “child-oriented” and so tragically replete with orphans, would surely have already adopted and applied this approach or at least would welcome these insights. It was the surprising out of hand rejection of what for me were experience-grounded understandings that first jolted me into questioning the place of children in the Israeli state.

Here were some of the responses I met. I was the consulting child psychiatrist to a general hospital. I suggested that where adults, especially women, were dying young, it would be a good idea to do some preliminary work with young children who were about to be orphaned. This was based on Erna Furman’s experience (not theory) that if a child has a therapeutic relationship before the death of a parent, that relationship can continue to be helpful. But if the child has no such relationship, she will be hard-pressed to enter one after her mother dies.

The answer in the hospital was that the staff of medical units is not trained to work with children so this is administratively irrelevant. The psychiatry department (in which I was trying to create a child psychiatry unit) was aghast at intervening before there was a problem. “Kids get over things,” I was told by my seniors, innocent of any child training. “This is not America.”

I served as consultant ad supervisor at the Rehabilitation Unit of the Ministry of Defense in Beer Sheva and the Southern District. Some of the social workers I supervised, who had no child training, took some interest.

I raised the matter with a career Defense Ministry psychologist. Her response was “This is not America,” by then familiar to me. I was told that since the Ministry had no interest in allotting resources to follow orphans for more than the two years that adult Israelis are granted for mourning before they become considered a pain in the ass. I suggested that children are quite different from adults in this area and was met an incredulous stare (by someone with no child training). This psychologist wrote the handbook on loss for the Ministry which completely ignored the literature and experience I brought to her attention. Years later, a prominent adult psychiatrist (with no child training) wrote an authoritative work in loss in which he recycled this first book in regards to children.

Well, maybe this is just “not America.” After all, in regards to discrimination against children, “America” exceeds Israel, as I pointed out in the first blog, so there is no “America.” However, the complete disregard by otherwise well trained professionals for the difference between adults and children raises a more general question. That question is to what extent the State of Israel regards a child as an individual with her own subjective and developmental personality and needs. And to what extent the State of Israel expects a child to fit into the adult’s pre-conceptions [=prejudices], to adjust her developmental needs to fit what the adult world allows her to need. We could put this question into contemporary terms of “default.” Is the default that a child who has lost a parent will be just fine, with those few cases of “resiliency” proving this point, and the many children who seem to have greater needs are “by default” deviant? Or could the default be set such that a child who has been orphaned is seen as facing a developmental challenge which needs attention, and the “resilient” child who gets along fine is the deviant (for the better) and not a case from which to generalize.

Anyone who works with children in Israel will be familiar with the operative default for all children in all situations — “How wonderful that children are so resilient!” By setting the default according to the exceptional child, we “by default” stigmatize many of our children and wash our hands of the opportunity let alone responsibility to learn from the less exceptional children. This attitude is ingrained in Israeli schools, “Other children are learning, the one who is not is deviant,” even if they constitute a substantial minority. “Other children are fine with the missiles falling on their heads and the stabbings in their streets, so if you are freaking out you are deviant,” “Other children are suited for army service, what is [the name and code number of] your problem?”

This “default” is set for orphans by those exceptional children and families where the child’s needs are managed solely within the family with a good result. My estimate – 10% of our people. Let me give an example. A woman in her thirties lost her militarily accomplished father in a training accident when she was 4-years-old. The military, the Defense Ministry and her family “defaulted” her as needing to get back to “resilient” development. She began, but never completed her mourning. Ten years later, when she became old enough to engage in completing the mourning, she was “defaulted,” as having finished with it a decade ago. Her adolescence, including her choices for boyfriends and spouse, were burdened by the “image of the lost parent.” When her own children were passing through the age at which she was orphaned, she found herself dissatisfied and came for treatment.

It took several years before she could be “undefault” herself and allow herself to see her father’s image as looming so large and so unresolved in her life. She could then “undefault” her childhood and review the ways in which she was forced to fit herself into the mold of the “default resilient” child. Only then could she regain her own “voice,” as Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan put it, regarding her loss and the rest of her personality.

This story was particularly moving to me as I had moved to Israel around the time of her loss, I was there trying to teach about loss when it happened to her, but I ended up “picking up the pieces” of an unnecessarily neglected developmental accident three decades later. In the meantime, newly orphaned Israeli children continue to be defaulted in the same manner.

Of course, a clinical-developmental view of loss through the perspective of a generation or two is not popular in psychological approaches these days. More like three months. But the orphaned child will be present in institutions of the state for nearly a generation. The proper “default” question of “how is the child progressing with a yet to be resolved challenge” can be passed from guidance counselor to guidance counselor, the school can be aware of special dates in this child’s life (birthdays, yahrzeit), etc. It was three decades ago, not in “CBTville” of 2016, that I consulted with a principal of a girls’ high school. A problematic girl was being discussed, and I pointed out that perhaps there was an unresolved issue of loss. The principal said, in all seriousness, “How am I supposed to know which girls have parents alive or dead?”

A usual explanation for this situation is that there is too much pain around; that so many adults have unresolved pain of their own that they cannot bear to see children as growing up as they themselves grew up. I have no doubt that this contributes to the difficulty. However, I believe that the general failure to appreciate each child as an individual and to be open to understand the needs of each child underlies this and many of the issues I have been raising in this blog.

In the next blog, I will take on this more general issue more fully, and then return to a consideration of more aspects of Childism in Israel.

About the Author
Alan Flashman was born in Foxborough, MA, and gained his BA from Columbia, MD from NYU, Pediatrics, Adult and Child Psychiatry specialties at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, The Bronx, NY. He has practiced in Beer Sheba since 1983, and taught mental health at Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University. He is currently CEO of Family Instiute of Neve Yerushalyim, sponsoring a first fully accredited post-masters training in family therapy for the Haredi community. Alan has edited readers on Therapeutic Communication with Children (2002) and Adolescents (2005) in Hebrew, translated Buber's I and Thou anew into Hebrew, and authored Losing It, an autobiography, and From Protection to Passover.