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November 9, 2018 11:27 am

A Mourner’s Advice to the Families of the Pittsburgh Victims

avatar by Sherri Mandell

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Caskets are carried outside of Pittsburgh’s Rodef Shalom Temple, the scene of the funeral for brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, two of the 11 Jewish worshipers shot and killed on Oct. 27, 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. Photo: Screenshot.

To the families of the victims of the Pittsburgh massacre,

I’m giving you this advice because I am a fellow survivor. My son Koby Mandell was murdered when he was 13. He was American, and he was Israeli — and he was murdered in Israel with his friend Yosef IshRan by terrorists in 2001.

Koby and Yosef left school and went hiking in the canyon near our home. They were beaten to death with large rocks. There’s a difference between mourning a death and mourning a traumatic, violent death. And here’s a little of what I’ve learned in the past 18 years.

1. Don’t listen to a word that anybody says about moving on. Forget the idea of closure. There is none. Don’t expect that one day, you’ll wake up and say: “Oh, that’s finished.” It’s never finished.

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2. It’s best if you can avoid anti-depressants. It’s better to feel the grief now.

3. Let people help you. Let them into your life. Now is a time to receive.

4. Grief is a wave that comes and goes, and you won’t feel it all the time; eventually it diminishes.

5. But time is not enough. You need friends and therapy, good food and exercise, and the support of the community. For me, grief was a war that I fought on all fronts. But the most important support I received was from my family and friends.

6. One day you’ll wake up and you’ll understand. This is part of your life.

7. Most of your days eventually will be bright, shiny, and sunny. But then there will come a reminder. In my case, it can be a baseball cap, or a bar mitzvah boy. And just the time of year that it happened will make you so sad.

8. You think about death differently, because somebody you loved went there so quickly.

9. Eventually, you will keep your grief stored inside of you. I keep mine with me, in a holy of holies, and I don’t let people come near it very often. Even though I speak and write about grief and resilience, and my work is with bereaved children and families, my intimate pain is one that I guard unless I feel very safe. That safety is something you sense — it’s something you feel in other people.

10. It’s such a cliché to say that love never dies, but it is true. You’ll always be connected, and sometimes absence can also be a presence. But it’s not the presence you want, of course.

11. The worst thing that somebody said to me during the shiva was, “You think this is bad, it’s only going to get worse.” It’s not true — although eventually the people leave, and the community thinks you’re doing fine. But nobody will know the aching loss that stabs you at times.

12. There’s a pain that you live with, but there’s also the joy of being alive — the joy of being part of a community that will embrace you.

13. Let yourself change. Don’t expect to be the same person — because you’re not.

14. The media will want you, and organizations will want you to speak. But eventually they’ll go away, and you will have to face your life and your loss.

15. Pain is energy. Pain is power. Use it to help the world. Whatever was best in the person you lost, take that and embrace it, and let it be your power now. Find a righteous cause.

We saw that our kids had nowhere to turn with their pain, so 18 years ago we established the Koby Mandell Foundation; its flagship program is Camp Koby for bereaved children. We wanted to do something that Koby would have liked. Koby was compassionate, and he loved having fun. Sometimes pain reveals a sacred mission.

I’m so sorry for your loss.

Sherri Mandell is the co-director of The Koby Mandell Foundation,which runs programs for bereaved families in Israel, including Camp Koby. She is the author of The Blessing of a Broken Heart and The Road to Resilience, and also a certified pastoral counselor. She can be reached at sherri@kobymandell.org.

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