Picking up the pieces

Within a matter of days during the Carmel fires, dozens of widows and children joined our organization of bereaved families.

Prison guard funeral in Ashkelon 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Prison guard funeral in Ashkelon 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
During Hanukka, which was supposed to have been a time of festivity and light, I found myself going from one home to another to comfort bereaved families. Within a few brief days, 31 widows and widowers and dozens of children joined our organization. Our family, large to begin with because of the country’s wars and the interminable fight for our existence, has grown even larger after this war – and a war it was – against the fire on the Carmel.
In a single day, I visited six widows – widows representing every ethnic group in the country and spanning the entire social and cultural spectrum, widows whose entire world shattered in one fateful moment, people who now have to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and put them together. It will be a terribly difficult journey.
In every home I entered I saw them, sitting on the floor, according to tradition, together with the other members of the stunned, aching family. I saw them; young, pale, in pain, smiling one moment and in tears the next. Their appetite and zest for life lost. Some of them are really only girls – and already widows.
Some of them are pregnant, carrying children who will never know their fathers. “Father” will be an abstract concept, not a touch, not a smile, not a gift. I saw them, holding their children, trying to draw their strength from the young ones.
I saw them and, in doing so, saw myself. Twenty-eight years ago, I was just like them – young, dreaming of growing old with my husband, my beloved, my partner and the father of my daughter and my son.
Every home I visited was full of people coming to comfort the bereaved. But is comfort possible? I know full well that at this time it is not, and perhaps never will be.
Therefore, I offer a shoulder and open my arms, while the tears roll down their cheeks, while their hands and legs tremble, when they ask how they can possibly contain this pain that cuts both flesh and soul, how they can possibly continue living now that their world is shattered.
What point can life have without their beloved? I know, because I’ve been there, that they don’t understand what part of this surrealistic play – all too realistic here – they’re acting in now, how much they want to get off the stage and go back behind the curtain. I look and I feel their pain, and I understand.
ONE OF the many questions I’m asked is: Should the children be told the awful truth? And how in the world do you tell a four-year-old that his daddy is never coming back again? The child – not comprehending, not digesting – who hears that “daddy’s in heaven and won’t be coming back,” will say, innocently, earnestly, “That can’t be true; if daddy’s in heaven, he can come back on a plane.”
A little girl doesn’t understand how she can never manage to see her daddy when she looks up. Another little one, whose mother told her that daddy is now in the picture in the living room, cries because daddy isn’t smiling at her from inside the black frame. These are truly existential questions, simple and real – and there are no answers. What can one possibly say? My own answers were no better.
Truly, everything went up in flames; even the souls of these new widows are burning from the pain. Everything is in a fog now – of tears, the unknown tomorrow, this piercing pain. They don’t know how to go home and continue living.
And, of course, there are so many practical questions: Do I go back to work? What do I do with his clothes? Should I stay in the same apartment – we were talking about moving? The fire in the Carmel is out, but the heart’s been seared; what unites us is the pain, the loss, this fracture of life, just like that, on a clear December day.
Twenty-eight years have passed since I lost my Ra’anan. But those first few moments – and such moments lasted quite a while, even after friends and relatives went back to their routines – return again and again, with every visit to a home where the fateful announcement arrived before I did. Every time I climb the stairs or walk down the path to the front door – yes, every single time, with those few steps between the routine of life and the home where the representative of the angel of death visited earlier – I am brought back to my own experience.
It isn’t easy, perhaps even harder as time passes, because no widow ever forgets those first few days, even if she’s rebuilt her life and even if she builds a new home, even if makeup covers the tears that continue to fall. Twenty-eight years later – and even though, fortunately, I found a new partner in life – I still weep.
IN RECENT years, we in the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization have been operating the Widow-for- Widow project in which a veteran widow (an awful phrase!) adopts a new widow and serves as her support system. This connection created between those who experienced the first days after the bitter news, as well as the first years of this coerced adjustment to a new chapter of life, has made us sisters in grief; truly, only we understand each other, both during these first days and in general.
Of course, it isn’t possible to teach a woman who, until just yesterday, thought of herself as a part of a couple and an intact family, how to be a widow. No, it’s not a skill you can acquire – it’s an existential state of being, so personal and individual, that each one of us enters at her own pace and in her own manner.
It is the same path, but everyone must walk it on their own. At first, on trembling legs, that seem to be about to give way at any moment; then your legs grow stronger, especially for the children, even if at night you collapse exhausted and broken into bed and onto a pillow to muffle the sobs. Time, of course, does not heal the wounds or the pain, but nevertheless it does generate experience. That paltry bit, we – the widows who have now lived longer without our partners than we lived with them – try to share with those from whose homes this awful fire tore spouses, partners and parents.
I’ve been there. Every time I see it anew, my heart breaks, because I know how much indecision there will be, especially over the smallest things. I know that daddy isn’t going to come back; he isn’t up there somewhere. I know that the picture will continue to gaze at us, but will never, ever smile.
The writer is chair of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization. To donate, please call 03-6918403, or visit www.idfwo.org.