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Sherri Mandell: Resilience after unimaginable loss

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Sherri Mandell (Debbi Cooper photo)

Sherri Mandell’s son, Koby, was killed by Arab terrorists outside the West Bank settlement of Tekoa in 2001. He was 13. Mandell, who’s originally from New York state, made aliyah in 1996. After Koby’s death, her family started The Koby Mandell Foundation, which provides support programs for people who are bereaved. An author and pastoral counsellor, Mandell is the author of several books, including The Blessing of a Broken Heart (2003) and The Road to Resilience (2015). She recently came to Montreal on a speaking tour, to share her family’s story.

Did writing The Blessing of a Broken Heart help you make sense of the horrible loss you experienced?

Koby was killed 17 years ago. That first year, a lot happened. I needed a place to put my pain. I was also having all these spiritual experiences. I felt like I had to keep track of what was going on. As the year went on, more mysterious events occurred.

Like what?

I felt so connected to the spiritual world, because, in a sense, I wanted to be with him, with Koby. The normal world became harder to be in. I had all these things happen with birds. I had dreams about birds; birds kept dying in front of me. One smashed my windshield. One got caught on the headlight of my car. I went to Florida to visit my mother and I wondered if Koby had come with me, from Israel. I took out a sandwich and a bird hit me in the head. All that year, these bird things.

I had a dream that I talked to God and said, “How can you say you’re a God of kindness? I don’t see it.” God said he does the mitzvah shiluach haken – if you take a baby bird from its nest to eat, you have to first shoo away the mother. After that dream, I saw there was a bird’s nest above my front door. During Koby’s first yahrzeit, the birds hatched and began to fly around.

In publishing these books about loss and resilience, you must have connected with others who have experienced similar tragedies. How did that affect your own mourning?

The real grieving happened the first year. By the time the books were published, I was doing more giving than grieving. We started the Koby Mandell Foundation, which runs camps for bereaved children. I became a pastoral counsellor and started running groups for bereaved mothers. People looked to me as a kind of role model. I felt a kinship with them. At that point, I didn’t live in the real world. I lived inside of loss. I mean, I had a life; I still had other children, a husband. But loss accompanied me. It was hard to feel free of it, to feel free of death.

In 2004, I started going on speaking tours. It had always been my dream to be an author on a book tour and here I was doing it because of my son’s murder. That put things into perspective. One of the first places I went was Houston. A bereaved mothers group took me to dinner beforehand. I was always looking for someone to give me the secret of how I could live with this loss, but I realized then that it helped that my story became bigger than me. A lot of people around the world learned our story. I think we gave a lot of people hope. I think we showed people you can live through a terrible tragedy and still live. People think resilience is bouncing back to who you were, but I define it as becoming something greater. When I was able to share my story and have people be transformed by it, I felt like my story changed. And that’s a very healing thing.

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In The Road to Resilience, you talk about a process not of overcoming, but of becoming. Can you talk about the difference a bit?

When you have a loss, people ask you: “Have you moved on? Did you get closure?” There is no closure. You don’t shut the door on something; it accompanies you. But the question is: How does it accompany you? How does it motivate and change you? I feel that Koby’s energy and spirit stays alive in our life. It’s ironic because his loss made us greater.

It’s not like I would want this, but, for example, on Yom ha-Zikaron, I was invited to speak in Hebrew at a pretty major ceremony. When I first got to Israel, I wouldn’t even speak in my ulpan class. I was in Level 1. After Koby died, I was able to take a lot more risks. I had suffered something so bad, what did I care if I spoke at the ceremony and people made fun of my accent? I had a tremendous will to keep Koby’s spirit alive. In The Road to Resilience, I formulated seven steps you need to traverse, in order to face your suffering and be enlarged. I came up with these seven categories. I realized they could all begin with the letter “C,” which would be easier for people to remember. I think they’re very meaningful.

What’s the step of choice all about?

At Koby’s funeral, my son Gavi, who was then six, looked at me and said, “I’m hungry.” We told the social worker, who told a policeman, who went and got him some chips. But I think what Gavi was really saying was, “Mommy, you have a choice. You have a dead son and you have me. And you better choose to pay attention to me.” I think he was very smart, emotionally, to call me back, to ask me to make a choice, to pay attention to him, to feed him.

Choice is always there. Right after Koby was killed, I had to choose a hat to wear. I remember thinking, “You’re disgusting that you care what colour beret you wear.” Then I thought, “No, that’s what’s going to save you. You’re not going to die from this loss, because you’re choosing.” In a way, you can say that choosing defines life. In the Bible, the first thing that happens after Eve is created is she’s given a choice not to do something. It all has to do with free will. I still had it. I didn’t have to succumb.

When you share your story, what are the main things you want people to take away?

It depends if they’re Jewish or not. If they’re Jewish, I want them to know that Koby was killed for being a Jew and that they should put Judaism and Israel at the centre of their world and their heart. I believe that that’s what Koby would want. For others, I want them to realize that the State of Israel is strong, but we’re still fighting in many ways.

And, I want people to remember Koby. I quote Rav Soloveitchik in my book. He said that every sorrow is a summons. You’re being called. It’s the question of: What do you do with your pain? How do you transform yourself? I think my biggest message is you can’t do it alone. One of the reasons my husband and I could rise from our pain is we have so much support from people where we live and from the wider Jewish community. There’s support for the foundation and we continue to be invited to tell our story. If I didn’t have the friends, neighbours and community around me who just refused to let go of me, I never would have survived.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.