Silent casualties

Overlooked by the IDF, unmarried partners of fallen soldiers turn to support groups with their grief.

burial idf feature 298 (photo credit: Illustrative Photo by Ariel Jerozolimski)
burial idf feature 298
(photo credit: Illustrative Photo by Ariel Jerozolimski)
Women who lost their boyfriends in action in Lebanon are ineligible for IDF-run bereavement services. They join scores of almost wives and unmarried partners in mourning from every war who have struggled to find their place in the circle of bereavement The caller ID was flashing the name of a friend from her boyfriend Ido's unit, someone she had just phoned but not reached. Yael Girafy clicked the green button on her cellphone and said "Hello," relieved that she would get some news about him. Since he crossed the border into Lebanon with his tank unit the previous day, she hadn't been able to reach him. "Yaeli?" an unfamiliar voice answered. She listened, blinked a few times and her mouth fell open. And then she started to scream. "Ido is dead," the caller had said. It was that abrupt call on a Saturday evening last August when the 19-year-old learned that her boyfriend, St.-Sgt. Ido Grabovsky, 20, had been killed by a Hizbullah anti-tank missile in southern Lebanon's Wadi Saluki. She didn't personally know the caller, a soldier from Grabovsky's unit, who briefly answered a couple of questions, then hung up. After the funeral, the cease-fire one day later and sitting shiva with the family, Girafy returned to her intensive officers' training course. Memories of him laughing competed with haunting flashes of the past week, creating a psychological noise in her head that knocked the instructor's voice right out of her ears. "I couldn't concentrate," she explains. "All of a sudden there's a war, Lebanon, Hizbullah, he's dead and I'm left in my regular world." Still, as an officer-in-training and now as an officer proper, she has to wear a mask of strength that her superiors do not see or acknowledge, she says. "They didn't talk to me about it, understand me or help me personally." At home, she also feels alone with her grief. From the moment the traditional 30-day mourning period came to an end, her phone started ringing. Her teenage peers urged her back into a social life of parties, pubs and nightclubs, echoing the words of well-meaning family members that it was time to start moving on. After declining offer after offer, friends, even close friends, stopped calling, and family members stopped talking about it, too, says Girafy: "They don't understand and they don't know what to do." An officer expecting his first child and another soldier engaged to be married were with her boyfriend in his tank when the missile struck, Girafy says, explaining why people don't take her grief as seriously. "I'm 'just' a girlfriend. Maybe if I wasn't in the army, if I were older or if we were together longer, people would take me more seriously. But I ignore all that - I'm dealing with death and loss." THE ATTITUDE that young women whose boyfriends are killed in action should have a faster and easier grieving process because of their age and single status is misguided, says Phyllis Heimowitz, who together with her eldest daughter, Tamar, founded the Non-Profit Organization for the Emotional Support of Girlfriends of Fallen Soldiers of the IDF. Heimowitz understands the grief of bereaved girlfriends, since her daughter Michal's fianc , Lt. Avi Bok, 22, was killed in southern Lebanon in 1997, while checking if his soldiers were safe and in position during a Hizbullah mortar attack. During the shiva, four months before the couple was to be married, family friends tried to comfort Heimowitz by telling her there was no need to worry, since her daughter was so young and had her whole life in front of her. "They didn't understand," she explains. "Her entire world collapsed; we felt we lost her. We too suffered terribly. She changed. And even though we're a very loving, close family, we felt she needed help. We turned to the Defense Ministry to ask it to establish support groups for the bereaved girlfriends [like the one it has for bereaved wives]. The answer was 'no.' "We were only looking for emotional, not financial support. There are hundreds of people in the army who deal with bereavement, but bereaved girlfriends were considered zero. Even if the girlfriend lived with the soldier, she was still not eligible for any emotional help from the IDF or Defense Ministry." According to the ministry, all army bereavement services are based on a series of laws, the first passed in 1950, for war widows, including the common-law partners of fallen soldiers. Today, a team of IDF officers, including one with expertise in bereavement counseling, is sent to alert and support the widow after her husband's death. A bereavement expert continues to be available to offer support, liaison and information, free state-sponsored counseling, support groups and financial assistance. There are also services for orphans, siblings and parents. Serious girlfriends and fianc s, though, are not officially informed of a partner's death, and may hear via a phone call or on the news. They are not entitled to counseling or the support groups. Under religious law, a Jewish girlfriend does not sit shiva because she is not family, and thus may not be greeted or acknowledged by guests as an official mourner. She may feel left out of the mourning process and may even require special permission from work, university or the army to attend the shiva. She is certainly not expected to embrace a long mourning period. When Heimowitz realized that neither the IDF nor the Defense Ministry could help her daughter - and the dozens of other girls like her - she and Tamar, a lawyer, turned to Tzafra Dweck, a ministry rehabilitation and bereavement expert. She encouraged the family to start a support system themselves and provided them with a list of specially trained IDF bereavement officers, who agreed to pass on the names of any girlfriends who gave permission to be contacted. In November 1997, 10 weeks after Bok's death, the Heimowitzes launched Israel's first private support group for 10 bereaved girlfriends, including Michal. Tamar was clerking for lawyer Aharon Aharoni, who raised the money to pay the salary of the group's leader, a clinical social worker. In 1998, the family met with IDF officers again, this time to make a case that the army should provide girlfriends with rights. "It was a moral question," says Heimowitz. "It was the period of Lebanon, soldiers fell almost every day. We decided that the IDF and Defense Ministry and the whole country have a moral obligation to take care of the girlfriends psychologically. That's what the soldiers would have wanted. That's what we owe the soldiers." The IDF eventually agreed to pay a clinical social worker's salary to head a support group for bereaved girlfriends, on condition the group register as a non-profit organization. It also agreed to pass the name of every known girlfriend or boyfriend who survived a fallen soldier. "This was the first time in the history of the IDF that girlfriends began to be recognized as part of the bereaved family and as entitled to its help," says Heimowitz. In 1998, the Organization for Emotional Support of Girlfriends of Fallen Soldiers of the IDF was officially registered, founded in memory of Lt. Avi Bok. The free, year-long support group met weekly for girlfriends and boyfriends of any religion, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation, whose partner died during IDF service, regardless of the cause of death. But as soldiers kept falling, the ministry grant wasn't enough. In May 2002, after Operation Defensive Shield, the US-based Ziv Tzedakah Fund signed on to fund two new support groups opened that month for 20 additional girlfriends. In 2003, during the Second Intifada, the US-based non-profit Hands of Tzedakah also signed on as major supporters. Later, the Defense Ministry tripled its support. As a result, there have been 18 support groups to date plus, most recently, a guidance group for parents. Two of the support groups, in Haifa and Tel Aviv, are specifically for bereaved partners of soldiers who fell in Lebanon last summer. Twenty-five of the 43 bereaved girlfriends signed on. Others who can't participate physically get support by telephone. An overall theme, says Heimowitz, is that unmarried partners in mourning feel additional pain and pressure because they feel misunderstood and unsupported. SOCIETY DOESN'T understand the mourning process of unmarried partners, says clinical psychologist Ofri Bar-Nadav. A specialist in mourning and bereavement, he has just concluded but not yet published four years of doctoral research at the University of Haifa on young women and partner loss. His study found that the grieving process for girlfriends is almost identical to that of childless wives. "I rarely found any differences," he says. "They both face depression, anxiety, trouble concentrating at work, trouble socially. They mourn deeply, yearn for their partners, want them back, talk about them all the time and actively grieve." The study explains that the intensity and length of grief is not necessarily correlated to marital status or length of time with a partner. "The status of being married or not has little to do with bereavement itself, except for the legitimization it gives a person in society, which in turn can help a person get social support and recover," says Bar-Nadav. "The younger you are, the more people tell you you'll get over it and it doesn't leave room for bereavement and grief; they feel like they have to defend themselves and their grief. That's overwhelming and makes them feel worse, because their feelings are not being legitimized. Girlfriends of soldiers are usually very young, very vulnerable, and anyone trying to help them has to know that younger women are vulnerable to self-esteem and identity issues." He also found that the pain of remembering the partner for both girlfriends and wives does not go away over time. "They maintain relationships with the deceased years later, remember their feelings, have anger at him for leaving," Bar-Nadav says. "He still influences their emotional life." One reason that mourning is similar for girlfriends and wives is that societal rules about relationships are different than in the past. "Today when you are in a serious relationship, you may live together. You share many things in your life that you couldn't share before," he explains. "In ordinary day-to-day life, being a girlfriend is not that different from being a wife as it once was. What makes a bigger difference is having children together." Israeli society is also unique in dealing with bereavement because of Jewish tradition and religion. "The one-year bereavement period, for example, is a myth," Bar-Nadav says. "There is no time limit. Israeli society is very sensitive to loss and bereavement on one hand, but on the other hand, society has become less patient and less generous to the different ways in which people mourn. In my opinion girlfriends and widows need to go through the process at their own pace, without being labeled disordered. They need patience, support and understanding because the road is long and bumpy." THE ROAD is so long for bereaved girlfriends, that every Remembrance Day, the Organization for the Emotional Support of Girlfriends of Fallen Soldiers of the IDF gets phone calls from women who are still coping with the effects of a boyfriend's death from every Israeli war. Rina Kahan lost her 22-year-old fianc during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when she was 19. Nearly three decades after his death, Kahan was watching a Remembrance Day television special and saw a bereaved girlfriend talking about the support groups. She immediately picked up the phone to volunteer. Today she runs the organization together with Phyllis and Tamar Heimowitz. "I am 100 percent sure that if there had been such a group in my day everything would have been easier for me. I was in so much pain and felt so alone then," she says. "For the longest time I would start crying out of the blue and not know why. I thought maybe I was mentally ill. But when you meet other women in the same situation, and you meet a psychologist who is an expert in mourning, they all tell you that this is normal. I didn't know that then." Now Kahan helps pass along this message, even to bereaved women who don't attend the support groups. "Every year on Remembrance Day a woman who lost her boyfriend in the Six Day War calls me for one hour; she still needs to talk," she says. "Another called recently because she lost her boyfriend in action, and now that her children are going off to the army she is afraid and needs to talk about it." Kahan, happily married with children, says the bereaved and later their spouses must accept that the process of remembering and commemorating is lifelong. "I and all my friends who lost boyfriends in the Yom Kippur War still go to the grave every year on Remembrance Day. Most also stay in touch with the families of the boyfriend. It's just part of your life." A special support group opened in 2002 for women who lost their boyfriends in the early 1990s, before the organization was founded, and felt they had not grieved properly. Another group for old-timers may also open in the future. "It still hurts when you remember, even after all these years," explains Kahan. "That never goes away. And after such a trauma you have to learn who you are again, because you are a different person." But nothing is like the first years, she emphasizes. "Some girls are suicidal; all are frightened. Its very hard for them to talk with their families and friends; they have so much anger and don't know where to direct it. They feel alone. And they don't want to move on - they still feel like the girlfriend and don't want to 'cheat.'" EIGHT MONTHS AFTER her boyfriend's funeral, Girafy still keeps her grieving private. But on a recent afternoon, she agrees to talk to a journalist for the first time. Arriving to Jerusalem from her IDF base on the northern border, she shoves her rifle out of the way, and brushes her kissed fingers over the mezuza. Once seated, she stares, blinking, at the sleeves of her uniform for a moment and then pushes her index fingers into the corners of her eyes. "I try not to cry," she says. "Society expects me not to cry anymore. Everyone expects me to be 'normal.'" She flips through a pocket photo album and journal about Grabovsky, plastered with his motto, "We are free." "I knew he was special the first time I met him. I knew he was the one," she says. "He loved everyone, worried about everyone, accepted everyone." She affectionately fingers Grabovsky's dog tags and photo, wrapped in the insignia of his unit, that she still wears as a necklace outside her uniform. "I can't stop thinking about him," she says. "I'm afraid if I do, I will forget something." She is also racked with questions: "Am I mad at the army or the war? There is something to that. His death was so unnecessary. So many people died and two days later there was a cease-fire, and they knew there was going to be a cease-fire, so you ask yourself, did they have to stay? "But I met Ido in the army. The army took him from me - but the army also gave him to me. If I had to choose between never meeting him and suffering this pain, I would never give up meeting him. "I don't know. Maybe he died so someone else could live. Would it have been better if he died in a car accident? Every death is meaningless." She stares at her sleeves again. "We didn't choose to break up. We talked about marriage. Now I will never know what was supposed to happen." When Girafy attended the first support group for young people whose boyfriends died in Lebanon, she said it was a relief to finally meet other people who knew what she was feeling. But at home and in the army, she stays silent, she explains. Her long trip by bus to Jerusalem to meet The Jerusalem Post is a break from her silence, but one with an objective. "I wish my officers and friends and family would read an article and understand how it feels to be in mourning, and to know that what Ido and I had was serious," she says. "I would tell people: 'Don't distance yourselves from me. If I don't want to go out, so come be with me at home. Keep calling. And don't give up on me, even when it's hard." She hums a bar from Shania Twain's "You're Still the One." It was a song she played for her boyfriend after they made up from their first fight, not long before he was killed. "We knew we should be together," she says. "I played him that song because I tried to imagine my life without him... and I couldn't."