March 23, 2019

A Child’s Murder, a Mother’s Strength

“The Blessing of a Broken Heart” by Sherri Mandell (Toby Press, 2003).

When a crime takes place in my neighborhood, I play a mental trick. Of course that (naive) person was mugged. She was walking alone after dark. Naturally that (careless) family was burglarized — they left their garage door unlocked. Why was that (foolish) person robbed in broad daylight? Because they live south of Third Street instead of north of it like me and my savvy neighbors. If the crime gets close, I just stretch. That robbery was on my block, true, but, please note, it was on the odd numbered side of the street.

Sociologists call this the “just world” phenomenon. We attribute meaning and logic to disturbing events so that we can get out of bed in the morning believing that the world is stable and predictable, that if we live according to the rules nothing bad will happen to us or our loved ones, that victims of misfortune deserve what happens to them.

When I started reading “The Blessing of a Broken Heart,” Sherri Mandell’s book about the murder of her 13-year-old son, I had plenty of grist for distancing myself from the horror of her loss. On the day he was killed, her son, Koby, and a friend skipped school (there you go) to go hiking in a scenic gorge near their home in a West Bank (need I say more?) settlement. There, they were brutally bludgeoned to death in a cave by Palestinians from a nearby village. The cave was located in an area in which travelers are required to have an armed army escort (case closed). That no one had ever been harmed in the gorge did not enter my computation.

By the time I finished this beautiful book, all of my tricks had failed me. Mandell, a journalist, chronicles her experiences during the year after her son’s death with unusual breadth and compassion. She invites us to join her as she observes the different faces of mourning.

In this startlingly moving passage she talks to her daughter:

The night of the funeral, I go to Eliana, 10 years old, to comfort her. We are in her room, on her bed. Her hair is dark and tussled; her eyes look at me with infinite kindness. She rubs my back, asks if she can bring me tea. I tell her: “I’m the mother and I’m here to take care of you.”

She says, “No, I’m your mother.”

I say, “No, I am still your mother and this is very hard now, but we will get through it, we will go on, and I will still be your mother.”

“No,” she says,” I’ll be your mother.”

“No, I am your mother, and I know this is hard, but your are my child, and I will take care of you,” I say firmly.

“Okay,” she says, “I’ll be your grandmother.”

And to her 6-year-old son:

Gavi asks me: “Who is Koby’s mommy now?”

I wonder what to answer. It’s true that I am still Koby’s mommy, but I no longer am the one who takes care of him. I answer, “God is his mommy.”

“Oh good,” Gavi answers, “then he can see a falling star whenever he wants.”

Mandell also explores the stages of her own grief. At first she wonders, “I am like the canary in the coal mine. I have been sent out to the land of the dead to see, can one live there?” She is surprised that the Jewish period for mourning a child is only 30 days. Then she comes to understand that when you lose a child, you grieve for the rest of your life.

“You don’t need the rituals to remind you to grieve,” she writes. “You will think of your child forever.”

Later she sees how agonizing it is to modify the reflexes and habits of love. “Six months after your death,” she writes Koby, “my body has phantom legs that walk to your bed to wake you for synagogue. My body lags in recognizing your absence. It is still moving towards you, like a flower to the light. The phantom legs walk to the door to welcome your home form school, bring you chips and salsa when your return.”

Slowly, Mandell learns how better to communicate with God. “God speaks to me. I know that. But sometimes his voice is silent. Other times he mumbles. I have to keep learning, so that I can recognize his language. I have to keep my heart open….”

She understands that without an intimate knowledge of death we are not fully alive.

“The thought of life without death scares me now,” she writes. “Grieving is also the place of God, the sacred place that connects heaven and earth. It is up to us as grievers to discover and dwell in that space. The sage says, ‘Each moment is a miracle and an agony. A miracle that the world exists in all its glory. An agony that this world is one of suffering and pain.”

I watch the news of unending conflict in Israel, and much as I wish it to be otherwise, the suffering of its families too often remains on the odd numbered side of my street. “The Blessing of a Broken Heart” gives the struggle a precious face and, at the same time, illustrates the power of Jewish faith, ritual and community to heal.

Wendy Mogel is the author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.” She is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles.