Comforting the bereaved

The IDF officers who inform families of a soldier's passing must balance compassion and stoicism.

October 1, 2006 08:40
ariel ovadia 88 298

ariel ovadia 88 298. (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)


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'It's not a job for amateurs. It must be done by someone professional, who has been trained, who knows how to tell if someone is at risk and might harm themselves.' - Prof. Mooli Lahad, director of the Community Stress Prevention Center in Kiryat Shmona 'Sometimes we hear the TV on inside and kids playing with each other, and we know that in one second we're going to change their whole lives' - Maj. Reuven Zilka, Katzin Ha'ir officer 'It was a beautiful day, around 4:30 in the afternoon and I was folding laundry," recalls Dora Ovadia of the moment she learned her eldest son, Ariel, had been killed in battle in Lebanon. "From my bedroom window I saw a car stop outside the house. I saw soldiers come out, and I just knew," she says, her eyes brimming. "I quickly ran to the door and locked it and started screaming at them, 'You can't come in, you can't come in!' I told them. "They kept saying, 'Please, we just have to ask you a few questions,' and finally I said, 'Okay, but just a few,' and let them in. Then one of them told me... and I said, 'It can't be him, it can't,' and started screaming and hitting him. I was alone in the house with Ariel's dog, and she was just going crazy. "His father wasn't home yet, and the soldiers waited with me until he came home," Ovadia says. "When he walked into the house, he didn't understand why there were three soldiers there. Then they told him about Ariel and he said it couldn't be, that he had just heard on the news that soldiers in Lebanon were hurt but not killed. But really, they just hadn't notified the families yet." The team of soldiers accompanied Ariel's parents to break the news to his grandparents and three younger siblings. One of his sisters, Ronit, was traveling in Chile at the time, and despite the best efforts of the Israeli Consulate, she wasn't located until five days later, when local policemen who had been given her photo tracked her down at a bus station. Brought in to the local police station, Ronit thought there was a problem with her passport until they took her to the consulate, where she immediately asked, "Is my brother dead?" Lt. Ariel Ovadia was killed in southern Lebanon on December 11, 1994. The squadron commander of a Golani unit stationed in the Lebanese village of Hasbaya, Ovadia had just finished his mandatory three years of service and was beginning his fourth. The army offered to send him to study instead of doing more combat service, but Ovadia refused to abandon his soldiers. "It was a relatively quiet time then, and Ariel convinced me not to be worried," Ovadia remembers. "It was a Sunday, and there had been a few warnings because it was the night before [Yitzhak] Rabin was supposed to get the peace prize." Twice a week, Ovadia's unit would walk from Hasbaya to Marjayoun, 13 km. away, to clear the road for the army. The walk took them about four hours, and on that Sunday, they were 10 minutes from reaching Marjayoun when his soldiers started taking off their uncomfortable helmets and heavy equipment. "Ariel made them all stop and put everything back on because they weren't there yet, and it was still dangerous," says Ovadia. Then the soldiers continued on their way to Marjayoun, passing by a cemetery on the outskirts of the village. There, hidden among the graves, four Hizbullah terrorists lay waiting. As soon as the unit approached, the terrorists began shooting at them. The soldiers quickly took cover in nearby trees and bushes. Ovadia raised his head for a moment to evaluate the situation, and was shot in the neck. He was killed instantly. "He was only 21 years old; he didn't even get to live to do anything," laments Dora Ovadia, the tears spilling over her face as she mourns her son's tragic death. "He was really smart, and funny, and there was more to him than the army and the way he died. There was also the way he lived." IN THIS SUMMER'S month-long war with Hizbullah, 119 soldiers were killed in southern Lebanon and northern Israel. One hundred and nineteen families were greeted at their front doors by a team of soldiers in uniform whose sole job it is to inform families that their sons have been killed in action. "It's not an easy job," says Major Reuven Zilka, 53, a veteran of Katzin Ha'ir [the IDF officers who inform families of the death of a soldier] of Haifa. "When I agreed to do this job, I didn't know how hard it would be emotionally." While the pain felt by the families of fallen soldiers is inconceivable, the task of the one appointed to pass on the message to the unsuspecting family is certainly not an enviable one. "It's very difficult, not only when I have to go tell the family, but when I hear the news myself," says Zilka. "I'm in the middle of reading the newspaper or watching TV, and suddenly I get a phone call from Katzin Ha'ir that I have to get there immediately because a soldier has been killed. It's horrible." When a soldier is killed in battle, a message is sent directly up through the ranks from the soldiers' unit to the Minhal Nifga'im and Katzin Ha'ir [the administrative office of the IDF's casualty department], who in turn notify the Katzin Ha'ir office in the soldier's home town. One of the city's many notifying teams is then called in to learn the soldier's particulars while the army confirms his identity, which in the worst cases can require DNA analysis or dental records. As soon as he receives the call, Zilka, the head of his team, leaves immediately for the briefing, where he reads the file of the fallen soldier with the other members of his team, which always includes a doctor, another officer and a soldier who accompanies them in plainclothes. The moment the identity has been verified, the team is sent to the family's home to notify them of the death. "We don't want them to know before we get there," explains Zilka, explaining why the process is so rushed. "We want the family to find out from us as quickly as possible, because today, everyone has cell phones and with all the media... we don't want the family to find out on their own." In one instance, Zilka went to notify a family after their son was killed, and upon arriving in the neighborhood, he realized everyone already knew - the brother of the fallen soldier had been called by friends who served in his brother's unit. But very often, it is the media that interfere with the delicate process, reporting that soldiers were killed before the army has a chance to notify the families. According to the army spokesman, when an incident occurs, the army tells the media that soldiers have been injured, and only after the families have been notified do they permit the media to say that soldiers were killed. That way, families needn't worry when they hear that soldiers have died in combat - if they weren't already notified by the army, it means "their" soldier is fine. However, explains one senior Katzin Ha'ir, the media has so much access today that they often find out on their own that soldiers were killed and immediately release that information to the public - causing a frenzy of panic and worry for families with a loved one in the army. The army goes to great lengths to keep families from worrying unnecessarily. Upon the notifying team's arrival in the family's neighborhood, the job of the plainclothes officer is to confirm the exact location of the home without raising the suspicion of neighbors or family members - the logic being that seeing a uniformed army officer wandering the street in search of a home would arouse suspicion and panic. Once they are 100% sure they will be knocking on the right door, the team makes their way to the home. "It's very difficult when we finally arrive at the house," says Zilka. "Your legs are shaking, your hands are sweating, your heart is beating fast. It's so hard to go in, and often you just want to run away, but you can't. "Sometimes we hear the TV on inside and kids playing with each other, and we know that in one second we're going to change their whole lives. It's even harder to go at night, when everyone's sleeping, and we wake them and the parents come to the door in their pajamas, and they open the door and see us. It's just awful." Usually, says Zilka, merely seeing three soldiers at the door is enough to let families with a loved one in the army know that a disaster has befallen them. "We usually don't even have to say anything," he adds. "They see us, they see the uniforms and they see in our faces that something terrible has happened, and they start to cry. They don't want to accept the news or believe it. They say, 'We just spoke to him, it's impossible,' and they cry. It's very hard. "We try to comfort them, get them a glass of water, calm them down," Zilka continues, "but the whole time I just want to cry myself. I don't cry, because I know I have to be strong. If they see that even I'm crying, it will only make them fall apart." After the team tells the family all they know about the soldier's death, the reaction is always one of pain and anguish. A doctor accompanies the team in case the reaction of a relative is particularly severe and requires medical attention, which Zilka claims is rare. "We once had to inform the family three times in one night - the parents, the siblings and the grandparents - and when we told the grandmother, she fainted," recalls Zilka. "The doctor was taking care of her and as she lay there crying, he started crying with her, and after we left he just broke, realized he couldn't do the job anymore and quit." IN THE wake of the initial shock, the team from Katzin Ha'ir helps the family make preparations for a funeral and burial, arranging everything from buses to the cemetery to what should be engraved on the tombstone. Members of Katzin Ha'ir escort the family to the funeral and remain with them throughout the seven days of shiva, providing whatever assistance and comfort they can to ease the burden on the grieving family. In the meantime, a few hours to a day after the family has been notified, a casualty officer (Katzin Nifga'im) representing the army unit of the fallen soldier arrives to support the family throughout the ordeal. "We stay with them for as long as they need us, sometimes 20 or 30 years," says Maj. Sarit Kojekaro, 35, a casualty officer from the Nahal Brigade. "In the beginning, we're there to help them, hug them, and eventually the unit becomes like their family." Soldiers from the unit stay in contact with the family throughout the years, which Ovadia says has provided her with some comfort. "They still call us and visit on Remembrance Day," she says, "Some of them have even named their own kids after Ariel. It's really amazing, they really care." Together with the army unit, the casualty officer arranges annual memorial services and trips with other families who have lost sons in battle. After the first trip, Dora Ovadia admits it was too emotionally difficult for her to participate in subsequent years, though this year she says she found the courage to join the group again. "It was nice, I almost felt like it was my son inviting me... " she says, choking on tears. "It was nice to be around other families who've lost sons, because they're really the only ones who know what you're going through." Ovadia relates that Michal, the casualty officer from her son's Golani unit, arrived the day after Ariel was killed and placed herself at the beck and call of his family. "There wasn't much she could do to really help us," continues Ovadia, "but she always had a smile on her face and it was just nice to know someone was there. I really appreciate what they did for us, providing a great support system, but I don't even know how they have the strength to do this job." The only thing Ovadia remembers complaining about during the ordeal was the fact that the officers who came to tell her that her son was dead had never even met him. Later, the army explained to her that they intentionally send officers with no connection to the fallen soldier to enable those who did know him well to maintain a connection with the family. Otherwise, it's possible the family might forever associate the face of the one who broke the terrible news with anguish and pain, instead of comfort and solace. In fact, Prof. Mooli Lahad, director of the Community Stress Prevention Center in Kiryat Shmona, stresses that not everyone can be the bearer of such heartbreaking news. "It's not a job for amateurs," he says. "It must be done by someone who is professional, who has been trained, who knows how to tell if someone is at risk and might harm themselves. The family and friends can come later to provide emotional support." The first stipulation for this line of work is that the soldier be of reserve duty age; 19 and 20-year-olds are ill-equipped for the emotional responsibility. While Katzin Ha'ir officers are usually men, casualty officers are usually women, as the permanence of the job requires a more emotional orientation. Both are required to take special psychology courses to prepare them for their emotionally taxing careers, and they receive constant individual guidance and mentoring. Nonetheless, situations do occur that no class can prepare them for. Zilka relates a time his team arrived at a house to notify a family of their son's death and the father, so overcome with anger and grief, took out a knife and began chasing after the officers. "We come across many different types of people, and for some it's very hard to accept the news," Zilka says. "One father started beating and punching me after I told him, and then realized what he was doing, stopped, and hugged me while he cried." Though Zilka says he can't pinpoint exactly how the nature of his work has personally affected him, he acknowledges that it has definitely influenced the way he views life and death, and creates a constant emotional strain. "Every single time I tell a family and I'm on my way home, I say to myself, 'Enough, I'm going to quit, I can't do this anymore,'" admits Zilka. "But after a day or two I calm down and go back." Lahad, who has worked with many bereaved families, says officers like Zilka often suffer from what is called compassion fatigue. "They absorb the stresses and pain and difficulties of the people who have been affected," says Lahad, "and they sometimes have dreams of the incident, or physical symptoms like fatigue and sadness. They might become apathetic about things they are doing." It is therefore of the utmost importance, he explains, that those notifying the families be mature professionals with families of their own, life experience and some knowledge of death, bereavement and grief. They also need supervision and support, he adds, but don't necessarily need psychological counseling "if they feel the altruistic aspect of their work." However, Lahad warns that too much time in this particular line of work is risky, and estimates officers shouldn't do it for more than than six years. Zilka has been on the job for more than 20 years, and confesses he has indeed suffered his share of sleepless nights. Though he had the option of ending his service when he turned 48, the year he became exempt from reserve duty, when the army asked him to stay, Zilka couldn't turn them down. "My work doesn't make me happy, but I know they need me," he says. "If I had known 20 years ago what I know today, I'm not sure I would have chosen this job," he admits, "But I know it's important, and I'll continue doing it for as long as they ask me to." In this most recent war, Zilka notified three families of their sons' deaths, once while Katyusha rockets fell only meters away. Aside from that, he has lost count of the number of times he has played the part of what Lahad calls the "angel of death." "I really just try to forget afterwards," says Zilka. "I try to forget everything as quickly as possible." But for the families who lost a son, a brother or a husband, forgetting is simply impossible. THIS SUMMER, while the war with Hizbullah ravaged northern Israel, Dora Ovadia was glued to the television as the media reported soldier after soldier killed in the fighting. "It was like living it all over again, knowing what all those families were going through... " she trails off, adding that it was particularly difficult for her when Israel left Lebanon in 2000. "All the soldiers coming home, smiling into the television and saying, 'Mom, I'm coming home,' and you know that your son is never coming home." Two years ago, Ariel's dog, who was with her when the officers came to tell her of his death, died, and Ovadia says she fell apart all over again. "You never get over it; you continue on with your life, but you never get over it," she says, sitting in front of a portrait of Ariel that a family friend painted after he was killed. "That's the thing in this country - you have to continue living. But there was a life before, and it's a different life afterwards; even if on the outside it looks the same, it never will be." No phone calls There are plenty of times when the notifying team arrives at a family's home and after knocking on the door realize no one is home. "If the family isn't at home we try to find them," says Zilka. Under no circumstances will they report the news to a family member over the phone. "We don't know how they're going to react," he explains. "After we tell them the news we don't even let them tell other family members over the phone." If need be, the team travels to the home of every member of the family in order to inform them of the death face to face. In fact, if one family member is at work, the team will even go to the workplace. There, they speak with whoever is in charge and call the family member into a private office to notify them of the news, because even though the atmosphere seems inappropriate, it is more important, says Zilka, to make sure the family knows as soon as possible. In the case of a hayal boded (lone soldier) whose family lives abroad, the news is passed on from the Minhal Nifga'im and Katzin Ha'ir in Israel to the Israeli consulate or embassy in the country where they reside. The military attach there is notified of the death, and with a doctor travels to the family's home to inform them. If there is no military attach in the country, it is the duty of the consul himself to notify the family. Injured soldiers When a soldier is injured in the line of duty but can still speak, he is asked to call his family and let them know he's okay and at the hospital. It's much more reassuring for parents to hear their son's voice on the phone rather than that of a stranger, says Major Reuven Zilka, of Katzin Ha'ir (the administrative office of the IDF's casualty department). Then arrangements are made for the family to be rushed to the soldier's bedside. If a soldier is injured moderately to seriously, notifying the family as quickly as possible falls under the jurisdiction of Katzin Ha'ir. As when bringing news of a death, they must show up at the family's doorstep to inform them of the terrible news in person. "If the soldier is hurt badly, we try to bring the family to their son in the hospital as quickly as possible," says Zilka. The problem, he adds, is that the families often refuse to believe the news. "We tell them to get dressed quickly, and sometimes it takes a lot of time because they think their son is dead and that we just don't want to tell them the truth." There was an incident, admits Zilka, when officers informed a family that their son was badly injured, and by the time they arrived at the hospital, their son was dead. The family, furious, was convinced the army had lied to them, when in reality it was just a horribly unfortunate situation of not making it to the hospital in time. In what some might call the worst cases, Katzin Ha'ir are also required to notify families if their sons are missing in action. Sometimes the son is found dead hours or even days later or, as Israel learned all too well this summer, it's learned that he's been captured by enemy forces.

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