‘It’s Never Finished’

30 days after Pittsburgh, those who have faced similar tragedies offer insight and tell how they turned trauma into a mission to heal

Photo credit: eJP

By Maayan Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

Some 30 days since tragedy struck the Jewish community of Pittsburgh. For a month since a Neo-Nazi gunman opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Shabbat murdering 11 people, there have been vigils and ceremonies, interviews and articles and op-eds.

But at some point, as after any tragedy – in recent years, there are too many mass shootings and/or terror attacks to name them – most of the world will move on.

“People don’t want to be pulled back into grief,” said Mindy Corporon, who in 2014 lost both her father, Dr. William Lewis Corporon, and 14-year-old son, Reat Griffin Underwood, when a Neo-Nazi fired on the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park, Kansas.

Sherri Mandell agrees.

Mandell, the mother of Koby Mandell, a 13-year-old American boy who was murdered near their home in Tekoa in May 2001, remembers the transition.

“The media will want you, the organizations will want you to speak,” she wrote in an open-letter to family members of those killed in Pittsburgh. “But eventually they’ll go away, and you will have to face your life and your loss.”

Mandell, who spoke by phone to eJewish Philanthropy, said there is a difference between mourning a death and mourning a traumatic, violent death. And she said the stages of mourning are different for everybody.

Corporon, for example, said that after 30 days she already had the feeling that people were ready to go on with their lives. Yet, it was only at 6 months that she was truly starting to understand and accept her fate.

“At six months, it really hit me what was happening,” Corporon said. “They [William and Reat] were not at camp or school or traveling. They were not here physically, and it was so painful to go through that again – and again.”

By a year, she said felt guilty for talking about her lost loved ones.

“I started feeling uncomfortable always talking about my deceased dad and son,” she told eJP. “I felt like people were tired of hearing about them and wanted to get on with their lives. People don’t want to be pulled back into grief again and again.”

But Corporon kept talking, nonetheless. And today, four years later, she told eJP with confidence that people who are murdered “out of that kind of violence deserve to be remembered.” She was referring to her own tragedy and to the recent tragedy in Pittsburgh.

Corporon founded the Faith Always Wins Foundation, which honors her late dad and son, and keeps their memories top of mind in the community. It also turns her tragic fate into an act of faith and love.

Faith Always Wins is based on three pillars: kindness, faith and healing. In year one, Corporon launched “Give Seven Days,” a week-long effort focused on small acts of kindness. The next year, she started an interfaith youth group. And most recently, Corporon working to bring corporate healing programs to area businesses.

“It is all God blessed,” she said. “God lifted me and redirected my heart. Sometimes my mind fights against it – more often my mind fights it. I say to God, ‘You want me to bring your people together?’”

She said, “God has given me a mission.”

Mandell expressed similar sentiments. She said, “Sometimes pain reveals a sacred mission.”

For Mandell, that mission is the Koby Mandell Foundation, which runs therapeutic healing programs for those who have lost a mother, father, sister, brother, or child to terrorism. Its flagship program is Camp Koby for bereaved children.

“We wanted to do something that Koby would have liked,” said Mandell. “Koby was compassionate, and he loved having fun.”

Similarly, Sarri Singer turned terror into triumph.

Singer, who moved to Israel at the end of 2001, became a victim of terror on June 11, 2003 when a teen-age suicide bomber blew himself up on the Jerusalem bus No. 14, which she had taken to meet a friend for dinner.

Singer was severely injured, but when she recovered, rather than harbor resentment or hopelessness, she founded Strength to Strength, a global haven for victims of terror and a network for survivors to heal, become empowered and move forward to build a culture of peace.

“If your heart is being stirred to take action, you should talk to someone about it and take that action,” Corporon said.

But she said also to recognize that while others might move on, the loved ones of the victims will never be the same. She told the victims of Pittsburgh to find time to cry, to journal and take care of themselves.

Corporon, Mandell and Singer said they all separately reached out to the Pittsburgh community to offer support.

“Four years out, I don’t cry as often,” Corporon told eJP “I still tend not to wear eye makeup because I don’t know when I am going to cry.”

Singer said for her, too, “Life is different now.” And she said this will likely be the case for the Pittsburgh community, too.

“It is not the same as it was the day before the attack, and it never will be the same,” Singer said. “But that does not mean that their lives cannot be fulfilled or lived to their fullest.”

Added Mandell: “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.”