The terrible tragedies this month at the Borderline Bar in Thousand Oaks, the Tree of Life Synagogue, a Kroger market in Kentucky, a Tallahassee Yoga studio, and the devastation suffered by the families and communities connected to those killed, brought me back in time to the events of September 8th, 1992 when my beloved sister Wendy and three other women were killed by a patient at a community mental health clinic in Jerusalem.These shootings were reminders of the violence of that day, opening again the feelings of grief and loss. I am aware of these difficult feelings, and also of the deep compassion I have for everyone whose lives are now divided into a “before” and “after.” People who have now involuntarily joined a club of survivors, a group that includes the families and friends of the congregants of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, and the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs; the celebrants at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and in the Route 91 Festival in Las Vegas; the students and families of Stoneman Douglass and Sandy Hook; and the families and loved ones of the more than 15,000 people who were victims of gun violence in the United States in 2017.
From the perspective of twenty-six years later, I would like to share my own experience and lessons learned about the impact of such an experience, the first of which is that each person is entitled to their own journey and feelings; there is no normal here, no right way to respond to something so outside of our ordinary experience.
Chapter 1: The immediate aftermath
Violent death was a tidal wave that came from nowhere and threatened to pull me under. The moments of the day I learned that my sister Wendy had been shot and killed are seared in my brain and wired into my body. I don’t usually share the specific details of her death, because I have learned that retelling the story only fixes the trauma further in me, and can spread the experience like a contagion to my listener. Our society consumes violence as entertainment, fixating on the salacious and gory details. In choosing to keep this part of the narrative to myself, I am trying to redefine the experience and not contribute to defining my sister as an object of violence.What I do share is the impact of the loss of Wendy, the isolation, the overwhelming sadness and grief. The sensation of living in a no man’s land, separated from both the living and the dead. I share the pain of sitting in my sister’s living room the day after she died and listening to my father recount his shame that he had not been the father he wished he had been, and now he had lost his opportunity for healing and reconciliation. And I share the patience of my sweet husband, as I curled up in a ball each night in bed, unable to respond to his loving touch without breaking into heaving sobs.
Sitting with people in this acute stage can be so uncomfortable, so heartbreaking, that our natural inclination is to fix, to try to start closing the wound right away. But there is no fixing or healing. What has happened is done. What we can give is our presence, and our compassion. We can stand alongside the grievers as they confront their own brokenness, telling them, “I am here for you.” This week, Jason Coffman, who had just learned that he had lost his son at the Borderline tragedy, opened himself to the heartbreak others would soon experience. Speaking to a reporter after his worst fears were confirmed, he said “I don’t know what to say to the other people that are going to be going through the situation I am. I’m speechless, heartbroken.”
Chapter 2: The many, many years of missing my sister
As I surfaced from the first few years of mourning, finally catching my breath and re-entering the land of the living but still having to tread water to stay afloat, I settled into my own way of missing and mourning my sister. It was a backdrop of sadness rather than paralyzing grief. I didn’t know what meaning to make of the experience, yet I also knew that I wanted to remember her as a whole, complicated, loving, alive person. Not as a murder victim. She was a person who had been central to my life for twenty-seven years. I wanted to hold on to all of her, and all of our time together, without all slipping away. But because she had died violently, I often couldn’t talk about her without feeling like I had to share that part of the story. I couldn’t reclaim her from the violence that took her from us. I stayed in this place for many years. Moving forward with my life, remembering her and mourning her, but not really knowing what to make of the experience.
Chapter 3: Reclaiming and celebrating Wendy
Social justice and healing was the force that animated my sister’s life. She was a therapist dedicated to helping adolescents and young adults struggling with mental health issues. She volunteered for the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center, and helped develop the first childhood sexual abuse prevention curriculum in Israel. She was a member of Women in Black, a movement of women, Jews and Arabs, against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. She was funny and fierce and stubborn. She taught me how to swim. She saw my truth and created a bubble of safety that protected me as I was growing up. The first time I went to a prison to speak in a Restorative Justice circle as a “survivor,” I shared about who my sister was in the world, and what she had meant to me. I realized that sitting in a circle of people who were responsible for the death of another human being, was the one place where I could share about my sister and know that my story and her life could continue to matter, to change lives and even create healing.
Creating opportunities for survivors and people responsible for harm to come together, either directly or indirectly is now a central part of my life’s work towards making real Dr. King’s “Beloved Community” founded on nonviolence. I am deeply grateful that my life’s experiences have brought me to this moment and place in my life. I am now connected with so many people who are working to counter hate with love, to be fierce advocates for those who are the stranger, the marginal, the ones who many would not include in our human family.
Chapter 4: Transformation and Healing: Lessons Learned about Violent Loss
For many people most directly impacted by acts of violence, their initial response to the anti-Semitic, racist, and misogynistic acts of violence and hate these past weeks (and months) first will be to simply mourn. To grieve the lives that should never had ended. As they mourn, and as we all struggle to make sense out of what is at its core a senseless event, I offer these lessons I have learned from the brave survivors who I have been lucky to walk with, learn from, and work with to transform our collective trauma.
• It’s okay to feel abnormal: It is not normal that your loved one died so violently. This is not something that is okay. If you feel like you have been transported to a place that is foreign and outside of what you ever thought your life would be, that is trauma — which is a normal response to abnormal events. Allow yourself to feel and be however you are. It will not feel like this forever, but pushing down or away the feelings will not really make them go away.
• Focus on your needs, not on the offender: A normal and human inclination is to focus on the offender, fueling our sense of hate, injustice. While this totally normal and we should not judge or suppress such feelings, we can also give ourselves permission to turn away from this focus toward our own unmet needs. Anger can be a cover for grief, loneliness, fear. When we channel all our feelings toward the person responsible, it may suppress the other feelings connected to all of our unmet needs, and slow down our process of mourning and healing.
• Create community and find your people: Find people who allow you to feel safe, to be supported. Our natural inclination when we are hurt is often to isolate and go inward. Find community where you can — your faith community, other survivors, family members, friends. You might have to recreate community if the people in your life don’t understand what you need. Find those who do. They are out there.
• Let your loved one be more than the way she died: Violent death can become a feedback loop of trauma if we continue to retell and focus on the violent nature of the death. Intentionally turn away from focusing on the details of the violence. Write down the story or record it with all the details if this helps you process and move through the traumatic experience, and then put your focus on who your loved one was.
• Make meaning from a meaningless event: You and your loved one did not get to choose how she died. The violence that found your loved one had NOTHING TO DO WITH WHO SHE WAS AS A PERSON. The person who harmed your loved one treated her as an object, an idea, not a human being. You get to decide how to honor your loved one, what stories will be told about who she was in the world, what mattered to her. You create the narrative in how you tell the story of who she was. Their memory can drive your activism and passion. You create the narrative in how you tell the story of who she was.
• Share your story. When it is time. Tell your truth. We are listening.