Israelis know how to do mourning right - opinion

Yom Hazikaron, viewed from afar, is haunting.

Mount Herzl on Israel's Remembrance Day.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mount Herzl on Israel's Remembrance Day.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Israelis got it right. 
First comes Yom Hazikaron, and then, 24 hours later, Yom Ha’atzmaut. Remembrance Day ends on the heels of Independence Day, this year April 13 through April 15.
This juxtaposition used to make no sense to me. Why would Israel honor its fallen soldiers, marking so many lost lives (23,741 by 2019) since 1948, only to barely have time to mourn before exploding into a jubilant celebration of independence? 
I always thought the country should separate its Day of Remembrance from its Independence Day – say, by weeks, if not months – so that both heady days could be fully acknowledged, to avoid emotional whiplash at the very least.
I’ve had the fortune to visit Israel a few times. With the exception of Shabbat, the only holiday I ever have been present for is Lag Ba’omer, so the way celebrations look in Israel is relegated to what friends recount or what I can watch on YouTube and the like.
Yom Hazikaron, viewed from afar, is haunting. How is it possible that an entire country is so coordinated that even its freeway traffic comes to a complete standstill as the sirens sound to connote two official moments of silence – of complete stillness, save for the breeze – to honor Israel’s fallen? 
And, then, how does the blue-and-white go from mourning shroud status to ecstatic symbol of freedom and solidarity? How are Israelis able to plumb the depths of their collective sorrow and then turn around a short while later to celebrate, unencumbered.
I’d asked myself, “‘Wouldn’t such elation after such sadness be forced, risk being fake?”
Recently, I came across this sentiment, written by an American living in Israel: “If you’ve never been in Israel during those two days, nothing can possibly explain the experience and the kind of emotions that it evokes. After a full day of grief and remembrance... we go rather abruptly to a truly joyous celebration of our freedom and achievements during Israel’s Independence Day.”
After a recent experience here in the States, I came to realize Israel’s genius in placing not only Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut in their current order, but also back-to-back.
The brother of one of my closest friends took his own life shortly after secular New Year 2021. Age 45, he left behind a wife and three children under 16, and the tightest-knit family I know. His sister, my friend for more than 30 years, is the reason I was present for Lag Ba’omer in 1993; I’d visited her in Jerusalem during our study-abroad year, she in Israel, me in France. 
Following her brother’s traumatic death, I could not fathom the depths of her sorrow, of her family’s at their sudden and devastating loss. I wanted to do something, anything, to demonstrate my love, support, shock. How does one do so from a distance – we live in different states – let alone during a pandemic.
Despite her family being blindsided and blinded by grief, they did make relatively quick arrangements for three shiva minyanim; they realized they should have them and decided to make them invitation-only to ensure social-distancing measures. 
I determined I needed to be there for one of them, COVID-19 or no. I booked a flight for January 11.
My birthday was January 10. For me, January in my own mind is “birthday month.” The instant I awaken on New Year’s Day, it’s my month. No, I don’t receive presents every day or party every day or do something “special” every day of January’s 31 days. 
Rather, it’s always been the month of the year I hold dear because as I turn a year older, I spend time reassessing my life and those of my children, contemplating my achievements and goals. On a less-lofty level, I even love grocery shopping in January because spying all the sell-by dates that coincide with my birthday gives me a little jolt of happiness. (I don’t get out much.)
This year was entirely different. The first 10 days of the month felt relatively the same to me as they do every January. But as the afternoon and then the evening of my birthday wore on, I only could focus on the shiva minyan I was to attend the next day. A shiva that wasn’t supposed to happen for another, say, 50 years. A shiva that wasn’t supposed to happen under the circumstances of the young man’s death. A shiva that wasn’t supposed to happen with his parents and other older relatives even present.
My birthday was like my own private Yom Ha’atzmaut, a day of great joy. The shiva minyan 24 hours later was like my own personal Yom Hazikaron, a day of incredible mourning and disbelief. I’d never before heard a father wail for his fallen son. I never will forget it.
I hated the creeping need, on January 10, as daylight morphed into darkness, to shed the happiness in anticipation of the coming sadness. I struggled with sorrow on January 11, while trying to be present for my girlfriend. The melancholy went on and on; it continues still.
And then it hit me: Israel does it right. Established in 1951, Yom Hazikaron allows Israelis to mourn communally for those who’ve fallen in the name of their country. And then they muster their enthusiasm and joy the very next day to fête Yom Ha’atzmaut, established in 1948, the year of Israel’s founding. 
In my research for this essay, I have come to learn that Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut once were so inextricably tied that they occurred on the same day, the day of Israel’s establishment. 
“That’s Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Hazikaron for Israelis,” a close friend, who herself is inextricably tied with Israel, recently told me. 
Like for my girlfriend and her family, the holidays in Israel that are the two sides of the same coin, their placement actually is not a choice. “But,” my friend continued, “a bitter-sweet reality each year that continues on in very real ways, as each family in each generation continues to send their children off to the military. The shiva you attended, and the reality of parents saying kaddish for their own children, is all too common in Israel, unfortunately.”
As noted above, three years after its independence, Israel moved Yom Ha’atzmaut to the day after Yom Hazikaron; they remained one after the other but no longer would be observed on the same day. I realize Israel planned its back-to-back days on purpose and my friend and her family had no choice. 
But the choice Israel made, whose reasoning once was elusive to me, now makes a lot of sense.
Israelis walk away from the revelry with an uplifted heart. I walked away from my birthday into a pit of grief; when there’s nothing established to interrupt the heartache, the hole feels rather infinite.
The writer is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance journalist and special projects writer for Jewish Family & Child Service.