How the twin sister of an American Christian murdered by terrorists in Israel copes with loss and not being part of the wider community observing Memorial Day
I met Kristine Luken posthumously. She and a mutual friend, Kay Wilson, were victims of an unspeakable terror attack in Israel in December 2010. Miraculously, Kay survived. I became so close to Kristine that upon meeting her twin sister Kathleen, I felt as if I was meeting not only the sister of an old friend, but having a reunion with an old friend, even though we had never met.
I’ve written about Kristine and her murder, and championed campaigns to memorialize her. Part of this is out of natural compassion for any victim of such an unspeakable terrorist crime. Part is because I feel an extra obligation regarding Kristine and her family. Why? Because as Americans and Christians, they are not naturally enveloped in the sense of community as are other families of victims, nor are they remembered per se when Israel observes Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day, when Israel remembers both its nearly 25,000 fallen soldiers and terror victims.
Kathleen and I have shared deep thoughts about Kristine, their faith, the terrorists, forgiveness, grief, and more. When an American Jew is murdered in Israel, as has happened multiple times, that they come from communities which observe Yom Hazikaron, there is a loving embrace of the survivors as of one of their own. Arguably, when a diaspora Jew is murdered in a terror attack, the extended community from which they came becomes more aware of the need to memorialize the tens of thousands of victims, and comfort their families.
Not so with non-Jews, even in the case of those like Kristine, whose lives were centered on love for God, for Israel, and the Jewish people. Being outside Israel and a formal Jewish community, families like Kristine’s are excluded. Not willingly, just circumstantially. With Memorial Day in the US being more of a holiday weekend than a day that significantly serves to remember even those lost in the military, they are left alone.
I asked Kathleen how she feels about that. “Unfortunately, I have not met anyone who has lost a loved one to terrorism. I had longed for many years to do so. I had searched to find someone who could understand and relate (to my loss), hoping they could help me navigate these unchartered waters.”
Jewish mourning is based on a centuries old tradition where one buries the deceased as soon as possible, then comforts the survivors. Part of this is done by talking about the deceased, remembering and reflecting on his/her life. Being outside any community that embraces this routinely, Kathleen also realizes that she’s missing something. “My grief has been extremely private with no public acknowledgement except the memorial service where I was in shock and (barely) begun the long journey of grief. The world would benefit by understanding the Jewish tradition of mourning. In Western culture, grief is (typically) private. Sadly, you’re expected to “get over it” and move on. For me, this is inextricably linked to my faith in God and Jesus Christ.
Does the church or organized Christian world provide a structure to help with grieving? “Western culture, to our own fault, expects grievers to put on a happy face. (You need to get) back to work and to “look” like you are OK. I dare say the desire is to have you move on because “they” feel uncomfortable with loss. While this sounds like an inditement I do believe it is justified.
Unlike Memorial Day in the US, where few know anyone who was killed in service, with nearly 25,000 victims in Israel who are mourned over the decades, nearly all Israelis have been touched. It’s said in Israel that everyone knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone, who has been lost to war or terror. This creates a sense of community, communal responsibility, and awareness that Kathleen didn’t have when Kristine was murdered. “My grief circle was limited. It was such a lonely experience on top of unmeasurable grief. I was newly married and my husband was thrown into the throes of tragedy of monumental proportions. My husband stayed steady and was an anchor as I wrestled with God, struggled, wept, and expressed my anger at God.”
“There were some friends who provided comfort. Many didn’t know how to “be there” for me and wanted me to let them know if I needed anything. I couldn’t articulate what I needed, and didn’t have the wherewithal to ask. Susanne, a dear friend, and her daughter, served our family at Kristine’s Memorial Service. She wept with me from afar through letters. She listened to my anguish, helping process my grief, my questions and railings at God as I accused Him of not loving Kristine.”
My prayer is that God will use my grief, all my struggles and pain, to help others and glorify and testify to God’s unfailing love as said in 2 Corinthians 1: 3-4 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of sympathy and the God of every comfort Who comforts us in every trouble, so that we may also be able to comfort those who are in any kind of trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God”.
Confronting Terrorism, a Culture of Terror and Kristine’s Murderers
In Israel, especially relating to the capture and imprisonment of terrorists who have murdered others, there’s a debate that is especially pronounced at this season. Israel has released many terrorists, some “with blood on their hands.” Despite claiming they will renounce terror as a condition of their release, many have gone on to murder again. Israelis debate whether we should ever release terrorists, and whether there should be a death penalty for terrorists. Some live with added anxiety that the murderers of their loved ones have gone free or will go free, opening old wounds. Perversely, others, whose loved ones have been murdered by terrorists who have not been apprehended derive “comfort” knowing that they won’t ever have the added grief of having their loved ones’ murderer being released.
Kathleen offers, “I am grateful the murderers were caught, providing a measure of closure and relief, as well as their life sentence. I have never been fixated on the murderers. My struggle and anguish and anger was at my God who did not intervene and protect my sister. After much wrestling I accepted what happened and while I will never understand why God did not intervene, I know He is good. I choose to draw near to Him knowing He promises to draw near to me in return (James 4:8).”
“There’s comfort knowing they can no longer hurt anyone else. It’s disturbing that they can be released as Israel does as goodwill gestures to the Palestinians; crazy, insulting and hurtful to the families! That is tacit agreement and condoning of terrorist behavior. I understood this has happened in the past which is shocking and frightening how any rationale could ever justify the release of anyone who has murdered anyone and committed a terrorist act. There was a time we understood the release of these men was a possibility. Our family felt helpless and powerless to protest or prevent this. They should never be released.”
Kathleen and I discussed how Palestinian Arabs celebrate, and even fund, terrorists who are imprisoned. “It is atrocious and abhorrent that the Palestinian Authority provides financial support to the families of those who perpetrate such evil and call them “national heroes.” It’s a practice that keeps Palestinians in a cycle of hate, an imprisonment of their own making. They will not be able to rise above this evil mentality. It will just continue to blind each generation. If Islam influences and encourages this evil against Jews, Palestinians are sadly duped. It is a lie. It is more than sad that (terrorism is) accepted blindly as an acceptable way of life.”
Early on, in discussing Kathleen’s story, I wrote to her using a common euphemism, that I would “give it a stab.” I never thought about my words, or how they might be insensitive or like fingernails on a blackboard of someone’s soul, given how Kristine was murdered. As sensitive as I am, this was a total blind spot. In Israel, there’s comfort in a support network, emotionally and financially, along with many social services and a community of other victims being able to relate to one another’s trauma. At one point Kathleen said, “I hesitate to tell you this, because I didn’t suffer the attack myself. In the early days, I had a sort of PTSD.”
I asked why she hesitated to say that? Don’t you have PTSD in fact? “I was so deeply traumatized by what had happened to my sister. The word murder was not in my vocabulary. The plotting of the attack, the violence itself, the pure evil was incomprehensible and left me in shock. I was dazed and unable to process the enormity of what happened. The shock and manner of her murder was terrorizing to my soul and that was what I described as PTSD. I was scared, as irrational as it was, especially at night.” Perhaps because they were twins, Kathleen’s PTSD was particularly unique. “I feared they would come after me. Hiking became fearful. My sister and I loved to hike. She was attacked on a hike in the outdoors. My fear was irrational though understandable.” I had to keep training my mind to think as Jesus said in Colossians 3:2 “set your mind on things above.”
Without a community and resources to support her, Kathleen grieved and suffered her trauma alone. “I had to learn to remember her, and not what happened to her. It will only imprison me and if I had done so I would be sick in my mind, body, soul and spirit. It would have enveloped and consumed me. It was a healthy practice, to protect myself from details that would (set me back) prevent me from carrying on with life. Because she suffered so greatly in her death, I struggled with intense reactions at objects associated with her murder. It has taken years to overcome to the degree (of PTSD) I have. I know God has been faithful to hold my heart and that He understands the trauma my soul has endured. I am sensitive to phrases we all use regularly like “take a stab at it”. Perhaps I will always cringe and avoid certain objects, and certainly will not use that phrase ever again.”
On Faith, Forgiveness, and Moving Forward
What about forgiveness? Is it possible to forgive the terrorists though they are unrepentant and have not sought forgiveness? Before Kristine’s murder, “being asked to forgive anyone for murder was unfathomable. God command us to forgive, I had to choose to forgive the men for robbing my sister of her life. I spoke the words of forgiveness and asked God to help me forgive.”
But they are unrepentant, and even celebrate what they did and would probably do it again, I probed. “It is unsettling to know that these men are unrepentant, that they found pleasure in the attack and have no remorse. Until they open their hearts to God, they will not be capable of feeling remorse and repentance.”
Kathleen had already chosen to forgive the terrorists when her parents and brother went to Israel for the trial and sentencing. “I didn’t go to Israel to see the men face to face where perhaps my choice to forgive would have been shaken to the core. Maybe God knew that to be in their presence would do more damage to my soul. I can’t imagine seeing the men who brutally murdered my sister with my own eyes. Would I have been able to say ‘what you did was horrific but with God’s power and love I forgive you?’ I pray yes.”
Despite not going to the court proceedings, Kathleen wonders “what the terrorists’ reactions would have been if I walked in the room. Would seeing my face shock them into the reality of what they had done, and bring them to their knees as they looked at the face of her identical twin sister? Would it wake them up from their coma and drunken stupor of their anger and hatred? I think I hoped if they had seen me they would do just that.”
Kathleen’s faith is steadfast. “I pray for their salvation. I have thought of visiting them in prison to extend my forgiveness. I pray God would be glorified. Maybe someday.”
Psalm 56:8 has deeply consoled me as I was so often inconsolable: “You number my wanderings; put my tears into Your bottle – are they not in Your book?”
Connection to Israel
While outside the Jewish community, and not having the benefit of the support that entails, Kathleen has developed a deeper appreciation for and connection to Israel and the Jewish people. Kristine was murdered because the terrorists thought she was a Jew. “The history of persecution of the Jewish people is unfathomable. But God loves His people and has always saved a remnant. This phrase is reiterated throughout the Old and New Testaments. The Jews are His “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of His own possession that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9) Honoring and remembering terror victims yearly is remarkable. This creates a shared experience, a powerful way to grieve and remember together.”
How should Israel acknowledge Kristine, and other non-Israelis murdered through terror in Israel, and specifically Christians like Kristine who were in Israel not as bystanders but because of her love for Israel? “Expanding the Memorial Day commemoration in Israel to include, honor and recognize all (non-Israeli) victims of terror is important. For Christians, specifically, Israel is like an adopted home of sorts. We pour our prayers and support for Israel on many levels. It would be honoring to remember ones such as my sister who lost her life while visiting Israel.”
How has Kristine’s murder changed you? “I feel robbed. I have heart scars that God is turning into a testimony of His love and faithfulness. My heart was shattered in a million pieces. I am comforted by Psalm 34:18 “The Lord is close to those of a broken heart …” He has and is continuing to put me back together and make something beautiful out of the ashes. I had to fight from getting lost in the loss. I had to press in and lean into God and His promises. I had to believe there were good days ahead and that God promises to use all that I had been through and work it out for my good.”
“It has been a very lonely difficult journey that I was thrust into without a choice. There are no blueprints on how to navigate grief. I wasn’t prepared, as silly as that sounds. I had to traverse loss and grief for the first time as I lost my identical twin sister.”
“The place and manner of her passing made it exponentially more difficult and complicated. I was constantly reminded that I had to keep moving and not sit down. Psalm 23:4 often came to my mind: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.’ The key word being “through.” I had to keep walking and not sit down in sadness although I did do that for quite a while, but I knew I could not stay that way.”
“I pray my story encourages and blesses others and that others see that ‘with God all things are possible.’ He has restored my hope. Hope has arisen from the ashes. He is my Hope! The questions of why of God were endless and eventually turned into a silent surrender. I had to trust Him. There was no place to turn but to Him. He has brought we through the dark days into the light of His loving embrace. He is writing a new chapter and He will use this tragedy and my pain to honor and glorify Him. I may not see it yet but I know He will.”
How should Israel publicly include and remember foreign citizens who are not Jewish, yet are murdered through terror in our Land because of their, circumstantially, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because they purposefully stand with Israel and suffer the hatred for our people? This Yom Hazikaron lets be sure to pause an extra moment and earnestly remember these victims, like Kristine Luken, as well.