Speaking with Bereaved Grandparents

Grandparents have adopted their own nomenclature — not “sitting shiva” but “standing shiva."
March 14, 2024
Eitan Cohen Moffat speaks about his grandson Shahar Cohen Mivtach

I made aliyah as a single woman and after eight years met and married my Israeli husband, who had fought in the Jerusalem Brigade in 1967 to liberate Jerusalem. He was also deployed during the Yom Kippur War, first on the Jordanian front (that, thankfully, did not join in the fray) and later spent six months in the IDF’s temporary bases in Egypt.

By the time we met, I felt fully Israeli. 

The wish of every parent in Israel, when a child is born, is that by the time they are adults, there will be no more war.

But the need for an army is still here. We pray that they come home safely.

And then we of a certain age find ourselves not only making shiva visits to friends whose children have fallen in wars, but to our peers — grandparents.

That includes terror attacks. Deaths not on the battlefield, but on what were supposed to be the fields of ordinary life, doing ordinary things. A walk in the mountains. A ride on a bus. A visit to the mall. With friends in a coffee shop.

A family visit to a kibbutz. A music festival.

Grandparents have adopted their own nomenclature — not “sitting shiva” but “standing shiva,” as they are among the extended family and friends who are quietly helping out in the background of the shiva home and, most of all, giving emotional support to their children and grandchildren in mourning. 

It is heart-breaking.

In Israel today, even chance conversations begin with the words, “I hope all is well with your family.” 

On several occasions, the answer I received was not, “Baruch Hashem all is well,” but “Our son/grandson fell in Gaza …”

The only possible reply, in our sudden, jarring sense of helplessness in the face of the tragedy, is, “I’m so, so sorry.” And you add, “I am here for you.” 

The OneFamily organization was created in 2002, during the bloody second intifada in Israel. Michal Belzberg, daughter of the founders, Chantal and Marc Belzberg, decided to use the money intended for her bat mitzva celebration instead to help victims of terror. 

Today, Michal is a married 34-year-old with a son and a baby on the way. A nutritional consultant and yoga instructor, she remains an active volunteer at OneFamily. She spearheaded the annual “Team OneFamily” of bereaved, injured, volunteers, and staff who ran together in the annual Jerusalem Marathon that took place on March 8.

OneFamily reports that since Oct. 7, the number of people needing their help has more than tripled. In addition to trying to reach thousands of bereaved families, they assist the injured with bureaucracy, make shiva calls, help the displaced, and give support to their own staff and volunteers who are also devastated and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of shattered lives.

Grieving grandparents do not have the religious framework of shiva, nor do they fall under the government’s category of the bereaved. One Family decided to try to fill that void. 

Grieving grandparents do not have the religious framework of shiva, nor do they fall under the government’s category of the bereaved. One Family decided to try to fill that void. Their recent programming included meetings in Caesarea with those whose grandchildren fell in the Oct. 7 massacre or in the war.

The grandparents met with Dr. Etti Avlin, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist who specializes in leading groups of those who have experienced trauma and mourning of loved ones. The name of the session is “From pain to hope – the double loss of grandparents.” The first meetings, “getting to know you” events, included the initial processing of the pain and loss, sharing, support and the creation of a peer group. 

These support meetings, accompanied by experienced social workers, will take place bi-monthly. 

A few grandparents speak

Eitan Cohen Moffat, 79 years old, a member of Kibbutz Kinneret, lost his grandson, Staff Sergeant Shahar Cohen Mivtach, 22, who was killed in combat in northern Gaza on Nov. 5. 

Eitan said that he went to Shahar’s parents and sat shiva, with “a ripped shirt and everything” for the entire week. 

“My grandson was gorgeous. His friends loved him so much. 

“I have fought in four wars. I have survived things no one should have. I have three daughters, seven grandkids … but Shahar was my oldest, the one who made me a grandfather. I was in the Armored Corps, and so was he; he had asked me to come and speak to his unit. We never had the chance, because war broke out. 

“When he had his bar mitzvah, I asked him if I could go up and have an aliyah with him as I had never had a bar mitzvah … so we did it together.

“When he had Shabbatot off, he would sometimes go to help his other grandmother, who is disabled.

“Shachar was in the first battalion to go in to Gaza and he was really happy about it. Ten days in, he was killed. 

“My daughter worries about us and introduced us to OneFamily. I went to the first event in Caesarea.

“In addition to losing our grandson (his years were the happiest in my life), our daughter is shattered. We have to give her support. She has a 17-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son and tries to be there for them. The OneFamily meetings give us an opportunity to talk about what we are going through and we are reminded that we are not alone. We get hugs and love. Hearing the other grandparents’ stories helps. 

“After everything I have been through … losing my eldest grandchild is the hardest blow of my life. I ask him, Shachar, to help me. To give me the strength to help my family. He is with me every day.” 

Hagi (Hagar) Shizef lives in Kibbutz Beit Alfa. Her grandson, Dror Behat, 30-years-old, was murdered at the Nova festival. He was working at the event in stage set up.

“I am a widow, so I can’t share the grief with my husband. I’ve suffered a lot of grieving and loss in my life already. I have five daughters. 

“Dror was just the best kid in the world. All the grandparents say that they were the best kids. 

“It was very emotional to get the invitation to the grandparents’ event in Caesarea … somebody SAW us. First the media and all of Israel seems to get to bereaved parents, then to the friends … and only then eventually to the grandparents. 

“Not only have we lost our grandkids, but our children are bereaved; they are shattered. They need us. No one can stop us from crying all day, but OneFamily gives us tips on how to be supportive while grieving, and how to accept support and help, how to let outsiders in to help us. 

“At the meeting, everyone spoke about their loss. It’s really staggering to see the sheer number of grandparents. 

“Their staff and volunteers are so kind … I still volunteer at a school. I know first-hand that giving makes a difference.” 

As I was completing the writing of this, it was announced that OneFamily is one of five organizations that have been helping families of hostages, fallen soldiers and those who were murdered on Oct. 7, who will receive this year’s prestigious Genesis Prize.

Toby Klein Greenwald is an award-winning journalist, theater director and editor of WholeFamily.com.

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