In her book on resilience, “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy,” Sheryl Sandberg writes about the importance of letting other people know how we feel when we are grieving a loss. In my own book, “The Road to Resilience,” I write about how the community can help us. Yet it is not always simple. Sandberg surrounded herself with expert care. Not everybody can. And even when we have support, we may not be able to open ourselves to receive it. Yet I agree with Sandberg that it may be exactly when we need to learn to accept help. I know. I, too, was privileged to receive the care I needed.
In 2001, my son, Koby, and his friend, Yosef Ish Ran, were attacked by terrorists, beaten to death with rocks when they were 13 years old, near our home in Israel. After Koby was murdered, it was the community that kept my family alive. People were with us in our home, they made us meals, took care of us, and that care continued for the first year, and in different forms, for many years afterwards. It would have been too much for us to carry the pain alone. It is the community that can make the difference in a person’s survival and resilience. In fact, a study showed that the mental health of child soldiers in Nepal was most affected by the way these children were received by their community when they returned home, not by the atrocities they had witnessed.
My husband and I created the Koby Mandell Foundation after my son’s murder to help bereaved and traumatized children and families in Israel cope with bereavement and trauma. We run Camp Koby as well as support groups for bereaved children and families. In this way we create a community for others.
Many people who have suffered great loss tell me that there was nobody there to help them. Their neighbors and friends and family were just not willing or available. Some didn’t acknowledge the loss, some couldn’t even say their dead child’s name. Of course, that can cause the bereaved to feel even more isolated.
And people can also unwittingly hurt us and aggravate our pain. For example, during Passover, I was at a wine-tasting fundraiser at the King David Hotel for the Koby Mandell Foundation and an attractive woman in her sixties approached me. She said, “You know if you had been a mother during the Holocaust and you were in hiding and you had a baby and the baby was crying, you would have had to smother that baby and kill him. And there would have been no help for you. You would not have been able to make a foundation.”
I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I just said thank you and walked away. What was there to say?
A few years ago, in a supermarket, a neighbor said to me: “You know every time I feel bad, I think of you. And then I don’t feel so bad.”
I stood there absolutely shocked. You see, grief opens you to the confusion and fears of other people. And one of the hardest things about being a bereaved person is the things that others say to you.
Of course many of us, not just bereaved parents, hear things from others that shock and dismay us. That is why in “The Road To Resilience” I talk about the need to be a teacher.
But we can’t go around teaching everybody. It would become more of a burden. You have to pick and choose. I was not going to educate that woman in the King David, for example. She is not a friend. I may not ever see her again in my life. Yet it does help, sometimes, if the person is important to us to say, “No, it’s not like that at all. This is what it feels like.”
It’s not easy or simple to be vulnerable and emotionally transparent. But becoming a teacher means that you contribute to the emotional intelligence of the community. Others cannot truly understand but they can learn to be empathetic and compassionate. In this way a bereaved person is transformed from being somebody who needs help to somebody who gives help. When a bereaved people can give from the depths of their experience, they bring wisdom to others. And that honest exchange can build resilience in the bereaved as well as in their communities.
Sherri Mandell is co-director of the Koby Mandell Foundation (kobymandell.org) and the author of the books, “The Road to Resilience” and “The Blessing of a Broken Heart.” She is a pastoral counselor and speaks around the world on grief and healing. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.