Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, several people wondering how they can help the families who lost young children contacted me, because my family suffered its own tragedy.
After my 13-year-old son Koby and his friend, Yosef Ish Ran, were murdered by terrorists here in Israel in 2001, I was sure that when I went outside, the whole world would have changed. That the sky would have turned red and the trees returned to rocks. I thought that there was no way that I or the world would survive my loss.
Grieving requires a new language.
Because the language once used to speak of art projects and homework and work and what’s for dinner no longer suffices. A new language must be learned instead that questions where God is and how such pain and sadness can exist in the world and how on earth we can contain this suffering and anger which threatens to undo us, as individuals and as a community. It asks: How can we live with the absence?
I can’t tell the families how to go on because at this point there is no going on. There is only the hard business of grieving. It is a job in itself. It requires courage and patience to face the emptiness and the longing and the loss and the horror and the might-have-been, and the if-only. If only I had kept him home from school. If only we had never moved to this town. If only Adam Lanza had had no guns in his house.
There is no such thing as closure for the victims’ families. But there may eventually be disclosure, a sense of mission. My family began the Koby Mandell Foundation, which runs healing programs and camps for 500 bereaved children each summer. The only way to rise from tragedy is to create meaning. And the first step in the victims’ families’ journey toward creating meaning is to receive kindness.
When your life is torpedoed there is often no way to continue. The ship is sinking and you can’t bail out enough water to save yourself. You are dependent on the kindness of strangers. And here is the point: it’s the community that will save these families by keeping them afloat. Even when they feel that they would prefer to drown.
Everybody is talking about gun control, which is necessary. But what keeps communities safe is talking, knowing what is going on in each other’s homes, reaching out to each other because it’s OK to ask if the other is OK.
So I say this to the people of Newtown: Continue to reach out. The grieving families no doubt are receiving a lot of help right now. But eventually that help will go away. The families will be left alone. Stay with them for the long run.
I would give anything not to have learned the vital importance of loving words, helpful deeds and the embrace of community. But I hope my experience can provide guidance that will help ease the pain of others.
Here are 10 suggestions for helping Newtown’s grieving families:
1. Sometimes words can cheapen or even desecrate. It is important to use words sparingly. Let the mourning family set the tone.
2. Even if you missed the funeral, you can still visit or call the person, even if it is months or even a year later. It is better to make the connection. And the family needs ongoing support. It will receive a lot of attention at first, and then slowly, the attention and care fades away.
3. Even if you didn’t know the person that well, the family will feel honored by your presence. It tells them that the person who is gone matters.
4. Every person has something to give to a person in pain. One person may not be good with words but can cook or bring drinks or pick up the other child from soccer. Know what you are good at and use that talent or skill to help the family.
5. Keep calling. Don’t tell the person that they should call you if they need you. You are responsible for calling them. You are there to support them. Don’t expect anything back from them.
6. Don’t ask them if they need anything. Say, I will be by on Monday to take you to the doctor or to bring you a meal or to help you with the wash.
7. Don’t tell the person you know how they feel. You don’t know how they feel. Don’t compare tragedies. And don’t tell them that you could never understand how they feel.
8. Don’t give advice or platitudes. Don’t try to solve their problems. Don’t tell them what to do or why it happened.
9. See that the children in the family are receiving attention as well. Children often are the silent victims in bereaved families because they don’t express their pain so everybody assumes they are fine.
10. Don’t tell people to be strong. They may need to feel broken. Feeling sad is OK. If they are allowed to feel their pain, then one day they will be able to emerge from their pain as stronger, wiser, more compassionate people.
Sherri Mandell is co-founder of the Koby Mandell Foundation.