Children deal with loss on Remembrance Day

"It’s usually when the dust settles, weeks after the Shiva, the first week of mourning after the death of a family member, that I make the first visit to the kids’ home."

April 20, 2015 22:01
4 minute read.
Benjamin Netanyahu

PM Netanyahu meets with IDF orphans. (photo credit: GPO)

‘How many kids do you know that also lost a parent?” It’s usually when the dust settles, weeks after the Shiva, the first week of mourning after the death of a family member, that I make the first visit to the kids’ home. There, in the kitchen or living room of a family that recently suffered the loss of a parent serving in the IDF, I get to know the faces behind the newspapers headlines, and after the small talk and introductions, that is one of the first questions I ask. Most reply that they can’t think of anyone in their social circle that knows what it’s like when your father dies.

When we at the IDF Widows & Orphans Organization came up with the concept behind OTZMA (strength) camps, overnight camps for Israeli kids with a parent that died while serving the IDF or one of the branches of the national security forces, providing our kids with a safe environment where they can meet others who know what they’re going through was one of the first principles we based ourselves on.

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In these hundreds of kitchens I sat in with our kids, there was always a spark their eyes when I told them about this happy place, where there are 200 or more kids that know what it’s like when Dad never returns. At OTZMA they find friends who can truly understand them – without even speaking a word. Surrounded by the support of Israeli society, which makes huge efforts to support bereaved military families, our kids still feel lonely dealing with the particular range of emotions they feel, and their groups at IDFWO’s OTZMA camps allow them to find true partners.

They can cry, laugh, and sometimes do both together without anyone thinking they’ve lost their minds – they can just be themselves. No masks.

In one of my first visits to a family whose father, an IDF officer, was killed during Operation Protective Edge last summer, I witnessed the mother suggesting her son should mow the lawn.

“It’s not my chore,” he responded.

“Whose chore is it?” she asked.

“Daddy’s,” he immediately replied.

“Well, you’ll have to take care of it now,” she said, and while I’m not sure they will even remember this conversation, I knew that this was yet another moment that proved, for both of them, that life had completely changed as a result of the war.

Our kids are forced to mature faster, and take more responsibilities upon themselves. They see their mothers, the remaining half of their most stable and secure rock and pillar, in their pain and agony and they know their role in the family has changed for good. When they’re at OTZMA, surrounded with the highest camper-staff ratio I know of in the country, being able to become part of our camp community means that they regain part of their lost childhood. They know they’re only expected to be kids – good kids, but just kids. They receive the gift of a break from this path they usually feel lonely walking.

They create long-term relationships with their counselors, young adults who completed their IDF service and volunteer to become positive role models and meaningful adults for our kids, whose life circumstances resulted the lack of one of the two most meaningful adults in their lives.

Our camps take place three to four times a year, during the school vacations of Succot, Hanukka and Passover. Over the years we’ve learned that there’s another positive side effect to OTZMA: our campers’ mothers, young widows who’ve found themselves struggling without their life partners, also feel that they have found someone to rely on. These young women find themselves with two, three or even four or more children they now need to raise on their own, taking sole responsibility for everything from house maintenance to the children’s discipline, education and future. When they send the most precious thing in their world to a five-days camp in the Galilee or the Negev, they do so knowing their kids will return with a sack of fun, having had empowering, enriching and supportive experiences with friends for life, and with the finest staff that can be found, and all in a safe environment, both physically and emotionally. They also get to enjoy some time on their own, a rare privilege after the death of their partner.

IDFWO’s OTZMA camps are a safe haven for hundreds of children who carry the consequences of Israel’s need for defense on their shoulders.

Each one of them walks their own path, some of which are especially difficult. At OTZMA, they find the right partners for their journey, which turns from a solitary experience to a shared one, with a powerful community of individuals who become family.

The author is director of youth programs of the IDF Widows & Orphans Organization.

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