When Ofira Rotem turned 30, she believed that her life was perfect. Married young, she was the mother of three sons, happily in love, and at the height of a career in the army as a bereavement officer. Things seemed pretty much on track.
But; life, life, life. Her oldest son, Oren, a tall and achingly handsome young man, grew up and enrolled in an officers’ course. As a present for graduating, his father bought him a motorbike. Rotem, who was divorced by that point, was distraught.
“I took him to Beit Lowenstein [rehabilitation hospital] where I worked with soldiers who had been injured in motorbike accidents and I begged him to let me sell the bike and buy him a car,” she recalls. “He wouldn’t hear of it.”
Five times Oren went to do his bike-riding license; four times he came home without it. The first time he failed. Then he failed again. Then it was raining too hard to do the test. Then the teachers went on strike.
Each time his mother pleaded with him to take this as a sign, and give up on the idea. To no avail. On the fifth try he got his license.
You can guess the end of the story. Twenty-one year-old Oren, now mobile, immediately took a trip to visit his brand-new girlfriend, a green-eyed beauty from a kibbutz up north. Coming home he zoomed into a curve in the road at a high speed, flipped, and was killed instantaneously.
Ofira Rotem’s commanding officer and a second colleague from her unit delivered the news.
I once heard author Meir Shalev explaining how for one of his books he had researched ways to describe pain. A doctor friend lent him a white coat and Shalev sat in on consultations in a clinic. He listened as patients described pain that stabbed, crushed and roiled.
He asked questions. He made notes. The next week the patients, impressed by his sensitivity, demanded from the genuine doctor to bring back “the other one.”
But, the truth is that no matter how good a writer you are, you can never adequately explain toothache to someone who has not experienced it. Or palpitations.
Or childbirth. Or a broken heart.
“Seeing my friends at the door I felt as if all my insides had been vacuumed out,” says Rotem. “It was like my skin was covering an empty shell.” Anyone who has experienced loss will shiver at her words; for the lucky few untouched by grief they will be just words.
“All I wanted to do was die; in a way I felt I was dead. I wondered whether I could ever be happy again.”
At Oren’s shiva, Asa Kasher, the author of Israel’s military Code of Ethics and himself a bereaved father, declared that the quest for happiness is elusive; happiness is not the key. According to him, meaning in life is what gets one through the day; doing something that makes a difference.
For Rotem this was not enough. “I wanted to be happy again and make Oren’s death somehow meaningful,” she explains, “to feel that he didn’t die in vain.”
In an attempt to save other lives she began lecturing to kids about the perils of motorbikes. This year alone over 40 riders have already been killed on Israel’s roads.
But dealing with dangers and death was only part of the healing process; Rotem wanted life too, to come out of tragedy. At the age of 42 she began a long round of fertility treatments. Five years later she became a mother to twin girls.
Grief dumps many challenges on the doorstep, some so unexpected that they just kick you in the guts.
Imagine a devastated mother who ventures out of her house to negotiate the supermarket for the first time after losing her soldier son. At the chocolate section she meets an acquaintance. This distant friend, possibly overcome with feelings of inadequacy, starts gushing about the goodies she has purchased to send to her own soldier as a treat. Sounds impossible to believe? Believe it; everyone has these stories.
Rotem, in her drive to make meaning from meaninglessness, started a memorial website incorporating the do’s and don’ts of comforting those in deep sorrow.
Don’t talk about the weather, or your fabulous trip abroad. Don’t gloat about your own son/husband/ mother when “comforting” someone who has lost theirs. Don’t talk about yourself during the shiva week; really, it’s not the time to share your troubles about feeling overworked. Don’t wish the bereaved hag sameah just days after their loved one has died; it’s definitely not going to be happy. Nor is it helpful to tell mourners that things are only going to get worse. (You think that can’t happen? Trust me on this.) To learn how to be a friend to a friend in need visit www.orenrotem.co.il. Sensitive support includes talking about the deceased and expressing how you’re grieving too, offering help and a hug, being there after the shiva ends. Make a note of the memorial; on the day just call to say I love you.
Out of pain sometimes great goodness is born.
Krembo Wings is one of those organizations that Israel pops out that make life worth living. Started by children in 2002, the youth movement integrates youngsters with and without disabilities in a whole range of social and educational activities. Rotem, a petite powerhouse who was determined to do some good, acted as director of the organization for seven years, helping it expand from 300 kids in eight branches to 5,000 members in 55 branches around the country, and it is still growing. Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Beduin children, religious and secular, play together and learn together and help each other become stronger together.
Shy kids with no physical challenges blossom as they help those who can’t walk properly to play and paint and spin around in their wheelchairs. Lonely children, who once felt trapped in those chairs, say that with Krembo Wings they have learned to fly. It’s inspirational stuff.
I don’t know much about Zen wisdom or nirvana, although I think they include the ideals of quietude and perfect happiness. I wonder whether anyone attains that heaven on earth. I do know that our own tradition teaches that he who is happy with what he has is truly rich. I suppose that harnessing pain to try to make other people’s lives easier is a pretty blessed way of getting through our short hours and weeks upon this earth.
Shabbat shalom to us all. One with the absolute minimum of pain. Drive carefully.To learn more about Krembo Wings visit www.krembo.org.il
Dr. Pamela Peled lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC. email@example.com