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When you stand with me in my grief

One of the hardest consequences of losing a child is the sense of isolation after the shiva is over
Seth and Sherri Mandell with Koby in the months before his death (photo credit: Courtesy the Mandell family)
Seth and Sherri Mandell with Koby in the months before his death (photo credit: Courtesy the Mandell family)

In her blog last week, Miriam Haber, whose son Pesach z”l fell recently in Gaza, described feeling alone and isolated while attending a synagogue where she didn’t know anyone. During the Yizkor memorial service, a stranger came over, put her arm around her shoulders, and stood with her. When Miriam asked her why she had done this, the women told her she saw Miriam was upset and did not want her to be alone in her grief.

One of the most difficult consequences of losing a child is the sense of isolation. A feeling that it is impossible for anyone who has not experienced the same loss to understand the pain and anguish of losing a beloved child. A feeling that there is no one to talk to.

Unfortunately, I know this sense of pain and isolation all too well. My 13-year-old son Koby Mandell and his friend Yosef Ish Ran were beaten to death by terrorists wielding boulders at the beginning of the second Intifada. I spent two years lying on a psychologist’s couch talking about the tragedy and its effect on me and my family. The psychologist’s quiet presence provided a safe space that allowed me to think about Koby and feel his loss. I use the term “on the couch” because it was his presence and concern that supported me. He said almost nothing the entire time. It was a wonderful gift.

For ten consecutive weeks before Pesach, The Koby Mandell Foundation, the organization we started after Koby was killed, ran a series of emotional healing retreats for those whose loved ones were murdered on October 7 and during the ensuing war. Our staff thought that relating my personal experience as a bereaved father would help our participants in their process of healing so I was asked to be present and speak to two groups of bereaved fathers.

It’s important to realize that the experience of losing a child to terror in Israel is life-changing and overwhelming. The parents are carried away by a tsunami of emotional pain, public attention, community chaos, and family responsibility. Hundreds if not thousands of people attend the funeral and the shiva. Family members are asked to appear on national TV. For a few days the entire nation focuses on your family. The outpouring of support is a wonderful feature of our society but it is difficult not to drown in the wave of emotional energy.

But when the shiva ends you are left alone with your family, isolated by your extraordinary experience and by the pain you feel at virtually every moment. In the beginning, there is no thought or emotion that is not colored by the love of, the loss of, and the life of the missing family member.

Everything has changed.

I had all this in mind when I met with the fathers whose children were killed as soldiers in Gaza or as civilians at the Nova Festival. I saw their raw, fresh pain. It’s impossible to overstate their grief and sorrow. Because of my own experience, I believe I knew how they felt, but I was acutely aware that I was not feeling what they were feeling. True, I had felt it 23 years ago, but the pain had mitigated, it had morphed into something else. It was now part of who I am but it was not what I felt at every moment.

I told them: I remember well how it felt to be in the midst of the pain you are feeling. I remember the first months and even years when every thought was about Koby, when every emotion and every minute was filled with the thought of what happened, of what I was missing. But now,” I said, “I am like a tourist visiting the place of your pain. I experience it, but not like you who are living through it, whose lives are now completely different, whose pain is fresh and overwhelming.”

And I had another message for them. It will get easier. “Your loss will never go away,” I said. “You have been changed forever. You are no longer the same person. But it will get easier to carry. There is a light at the end of the tunnel but it is not the light you expect. It will be a different light. It will be a different color. And you and your families will emerge changed. You will come out into the sunlight perhaps even a better version of the person you were before.”

On the morning of Yom Hazikaron during Corona when we were all isolated from our communities there was a knock on our door. Two teenage girls stood there. “We’re here to be with you when the siren sounds.” They said. The youth of Tekoa had taken it upon themselves to show that the community recognized our pain during Yom HaZicharon. They stood there with us during the siren without saying anything at all, but it meant the world to us.

This Yom Hazikaron we will all be with family members, friends, and acquaintances and even people we don’t yet know who lost loved ones on October 7th and beyond. We can show them that we care about their loss. We don’t have to talk. All we have to do is walk over to them in the synagogue, or in the grocery store or in the street and stand with them. And when they ask why you did that or even before they ask you can say “I didn’t want you to be alone.”

About the Author
Seth Mandell and his wife Sherri moved to Israel from America in 1996 because they loved Israel and wanted to put Judaism in the center of their lives and their children's lives. Their lives were devastated on May 8, 2001, when their 13 year old son Koby was murdered by terrorists. In Koby's memory, they created the Koby Mandell Foundation which provides healing programs for families struck by terrorism. Seth, a rabbi, believes that the Jewish response to suffering is to live a fuller and more engaged life. The Koby Mandell Foundation helps others who have suffered the trauma of loss overcome the isolation that keeps them from returning to life.