A journey of healing is possible even after unthinkable loss, but the right help along the way is critical

In Short

For the bereaved, the losses of Oct. 7 will be an ongoing experience. Support will need to be ongoing as well.

The question of how Israeli society, with the assistance of Jewish philanthropy globally, can facilitate the healing of those directly affected by the Oct. 7 massacre and its aftermath is historic, complex and should be defined by the needs of those affected. Drawing on 22 years of organizing emotional-support programming for Israelis bereaved through terror or tragedy, and my own personal experience, I am going to focus here on the needs of bereaved family members.

As my wife recounted in a recent piece for eJewishPhilanthropy, our 13-year-old-son Koby and his friend, Yosef Ishran, were murdered by Palestinian terrorists near our home in Israel 22 two years ago. The loss of our son demanded from us such a profound emotional shift that it was like learning to walk again. We were forced to create a new life and a new life perspective only marginally connected to what came before. 

In his autobiography, Mark Twain relates his experience of the grieving process after the death of his 24-year-old daughter from meningitis:

“It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live. There is but one reasonable explanation of it. The intellect is stunned by the shock, and but gropingly gathers the meaning of the words. The power to realize their fall import is mercifully wanting. The mind has a dumb sense of vast loss – that is all. It will take mind and memory months, and possibly years, to gather together the details, and thus learn and know the whole extent of the loss. A man’s house burns down. The smoking wreckage represents only a ruined home that was dear through years of use and pleasant associations. By and by, as the days and weeks go on, first he misses this, then that, then the other thing. And, when he casts about for it, he finds that it was in that house. Always it is an essential – there was but one of its kind. It cannot be replaced. It was in that house. It is irrevocably lost. He did not realize that it was an essential when he had it; he only discovers it now when he finds himself balked, hampered, by its absence. It will be years before the tale of lost essentials is complete, and not till then can he truly know the magnitude of his disaster.”

This process of complicated grief is a long-term challenge that can take a lifetime to resolve. 

The day Koby was murdered brought a tidal wave of necessary arrangements, followed by the burial and the beginning of shiva. We were surrounded by people who wanted to help: local political leaders, a government social worker, our friends and neighbors. But there was no time to think, to gain perspective or to really deeply feel the loss. 

For the families recently bereaved in the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel and then in the war in Gaza, the situation is even more complex. Their grief includes not only the loss of a beloved family member or members, but the circumstances surrounding the event. The survivors of the attacks themselves have to cope with  their own personal trauma as well as the loss of loved ones. The families of the kidnapped Israelis, the soldiers killed in part as a result of the negligence of the leadership — all of these are incredibly complicated situations that engender a flood of different, complicated emotions: anger, grief, disappointment, patriotism, blame, horror, etc. 

So how can Israeli society — government social services agencies, the NGOs dealing with trauma and bereavement, the education system and the society at large — create a comprehensive network of support and healing that will nurture and understand and even encourage the bereaved to heal, to retain or regain their faith in society, in their government, in themselves and even in their Creator? 

The first stage began immediately after the Oct. 7 attack. Israeli society and the Israeli government flew into action to attend to the physical needs of the families and individuals bereaved and/or traumatized by the attack. Volunteers provided clothing, toys and other items, much of it donated by American Jews; and the government moved those who had lost their homes into hotels and other temporary housing. 

The second stage began as soon as the survivors’ immediate physical needs were addressed and is ongoing today as government and NGO-sponsored trauma therapists, psychologists and grief therapists were dispatched to support the traumatized individuals, including the family members of those murdered. 

We are now entering a third stage, when those who lost loved ones to the terror of Oct. 7 are beginning to come to terms with their loss, to realize that their lives are forever changed and that they will have to create a new way to walk in the world as they move forward with their lives, their families and their careers, all the while carrying the pain of loss in their hearts. 

To support their journey, Israel society needs to provide opportunities for those affected to learn new ways of relating to the world, new ways of relating to others and new ways of moving toward an attitude where the tragedy can become an impetus to living a better, more meaningful life.

For this, government agencies and NGOs need to create safe spaces where people can, under the guidance of trained therapists and bereavement counselors, connect to a community of survivors who understand them and can support them as peers. The Koby Mandell Foundation, the organization we founded in 2002, as well the IDF and other organizations, can facilitate this endeavor by bringing people together for programs like overnight retreats for widows and bereaved parents, overnight camps for children, family days and ongoing women’s and men’s groups. 

Continuously ongoing programs  like these accomplish three things. First, they  provide a simple element of relief for people who are under constant pressure from their everyday life — from their family members who need them, from their communities and from their jobs. Second, it brings their abnormal situation into a space of normality. In an environment where everyone has lost a loved one, you are no longer an object of pity, and you don’t have to consider how to express your emotions to someone who can’t understand. You can laugh or cry without embarrassment and without misunderstanding. The kinds of relationships formed in these environments offer a lifelong cohort of friends who become an informal support group. 

On a practical level, these groups should take place throughout the country  and constantly  from now until the end of the year. Weekly or biweekly intensive emotional support groups for whoever wants and longer retreats and camps for different groups of people: children, youth, young adults, mothers, fathers, families, etc. This will create informal support groups as people get to know each other, create friendships and establish relationships with the professional therapists they’ll meet and get to know. 

After about a year, the frequency of the gatherings can slow down and retreats and camps can be held a few times a year — but it is important to note that the bereaved individuals need to know that the society at large continues to care for them. As Mark Twain explains, it will be years before the magnitude of their disaster will be known. Yearly or biannual reunion retreats, sponsored by the government and/or NGOs, should be free and continue for an unlimited time as a gift from the Jewish People for these bereaved families’ courage and sacrifice. 

Recently, someone called me and offered a significant five-figure gift to The Koby Mandell Foundation for immediate support for the survivors of Oct. 7. I was proud to be able to share the range of new programs we’ve instituted and are planning and that the funds donated would immediately be put to work to help those affected. 

My concern is that, as time goes by and G-d willing the war ends, the plight of the survivors will recede from the top of the Jewish community’s funding agenda — and financial support will be more and more difficult to obtain, even as the needs of the bereaved continue for years ahead. 

Rabbi Seth Mandell is co-founder and co-president of the Koby Mandell Foundation.