For Parents to Fallen Soldiers, Overcoming Grief Begins With Decision to 'Move On'

Rare study of bereaved parents found decision to keep on living isn't a given

Miri Dan-Gur with a picture of her son Eran.
Michal Fattal

“I define it as a kind of stroke. As if you’re handicapped from then on. Everything you believed in, everything you knew, everything you thought you had control over – it all changes.” Dr. Miri Dan-Goor is describing how her life was divided into two: before March 1, 2008, and after. That Saturday was when she lost her son, Eran Dan-Goor, a combat soldier in the Givati Brigade, during Operation Warm Winter in the Gaza Strip.

Eran was supposed to have gone home for the weekend, but he called his mother and said he would be staying on base because of the planned operation. “He really said goodbye on the phone. I felt in his words and his voice that it was a kind of a separation; I wasn’t at peace,” she recalls.

That night, Miri Dan-Goor dreamed how the army’s representatives knocked on her door. And from then on, she says, she waited. And then they came.

A bereaved family at the grave of their son, Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, April 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Until her son’s death, she had planned on continuing her academic career, on further publications, advancement to a professorship. “That disappeared in a moment,” she says. “Nothing was important anymore. ... I wanted to lie in bed and die, may my children forgive me.”

As part of the long process of dealing with the grief – and like many other bereaved parents – she moved her career into a more therapeutic direction. Dan-Goor signed up for a bachelor’s degree in psychology, funded by the Defense Ministry.

“These studies gave me many tools, including understanding the processes I was going through,” she explains, adding that she focused on bereavement in her studies to understand its impact better.

Because of her background as a researcher and her desire to help other bereaved families, she agreed to take part in a special research project now being conducted by the Hebrew University and the Defense Ministry.

The goal of the research is to identify the factors that help or delay dealing with bereavement, and to qualify the kind of assistance the Defense Ministry gives bereaved families and whether it meets the demands of the parents.

According to Defense Ministry figures, there are 9,157 bereaved parents living in Israel, some 90 percent of whom are 60 or over.

The first step was to form a focus group of 18 parents (including Dan-Goor) who had lost their children in the military in recent years.

Miriam Schiff, Yonatan Elkins and Eti Aharoni.
Emil Salman

The group answered a number of key questions, such as: What did living with bereavement mean for them? What were their sources of support? And had the Defense Ministry helped them?

“Not many studies have been done about bereaved families, and even fewer about the individual follow-up they were given,” says Eti Aharoni, a social worker in the Jerusalem district of the Defense Ministry’s department dealing with commemoration and heritage, and who was in charge of the study in the Jerusalem area. “There were people who said initially, ‘What difference does it make?’ But if we know more, we can probably be more specific when we go to a family, and then the conversation is a little different,” she says.

Social workers say they see each family they treat as a whole world. “We are present from the moment of the shivah [the weeklong Jewish mourning period that starts after the funeral] and offer something we don’t always know how to define. We listen, try to learn and see where a person is willing to accept a helping hand – and this looks different with each family,” says Sarit Parnas, a Jerusalem district social worker who is part of the research project.

But Prof. Miriam Schiff, of the Hebrew University’s Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare, says the goal of the study is to reach generalized insights, which can help later. “That is what we wanted – let’s look beyond a particular family, what we can learn. That’s the significance of the research,” Schiff says.

The decision to ‘go on’

The first of those insights was about the parents’ decision to “go on,” which is not a given. Bereaved parents describe it as a kind of lighthouse that helps them navigate their lives after the tragedy. “They talk about a decision they made, sometimes with a spouse, sometimes individually, to go on,” says Yonatan Elkins, coordinator of the study for the university, who is also a clinical social worker and therapist in the Defense Ministry’s combat response unit.

That’s what retired civil servant Ami Ifrah says happened to him after his son Danny fell in a terror attack in Nahariya in 2001. “I looked her in the eye and I said that we have to continue living,” he says, recalling a conversation with his wife, Anika. “We needed enormous strength to deal with the loss, to understand that we suddenly lost our beloved son, that we had to make decisions, that we would continue our lives. That’s what Danny would have wanted – for us not to break,” says Ami Ifrah.

Danny Ifrah.

Danny Ifrah was killed just before Rosh Hashanah, when he was only 19. After the shivah, and when the holiday was over, Ami Ifrah decided to go back to work, which amazed his friends. “But when I went back to work, that was the greatest support I got,” he relates. “My friends, people in the office, they got me back on my feet. I had a kind of drive, that I wasn’t going to sit and look at the four walls, sit and cry, curse myself and bury myself, and be the poor guy everybody feels sorry for. I didn’t want that under any circumstances. I said I want to be within my pain, internalize it, and learn to live with this situation.”

Danny Ifrah loved the theater – he was a graduate of the High School for the Arts in Jerusalem – and to play music and sing. Ami says this actually inspired him to join a choir of bereaved fathers, which performs throughout the country. “I find myself in situations where I say, ‘What on earth am I doing here?’ And then I think, ‘Danny would have done this, and I’m doing it in his place,” says Ami. Smiling, he says Danny would laugh at him for singing off-key.

“What is sad is that he was so far from hatred – and that is what caused him to be killed. A terrorist came, an Arab Israeli, with an explosive device. For Danny, who loved all people so much, it didn’t matter if a person was Jewish or Arab. And he, of all people, was killed by hatred,” adds Ami Ifrah.

Another factor the research is examining is how faith helps people deal with bereavement. Some of the parents in the focus group said they believed they would one day meet their son again. Others said they envied such faith, without which they had no hope or healing.

Dan-Goor says that after Eran died, she was angry with God and that her faith disappeared. “This was a home that always observed [the fast of] Yom Kippur and for the first time after, on purpose, we had a whole meal, saying, ‘If you don’t see me, I don’t see you.’ Today I have an argument [with God] – not from a place of anger, but more to try to understand – and my faith came back,” she relates.

A ceremony marking Memorial Day for fallen soldiers at the Military Cemetery, Holon.
Chaim Twitto

‘Everything is allowed’

Both Dan-Goor and Ifrah say the contacts they made with other bereaved parents helped them, and continues to help to this day. “In this group, you can get to know others, rejoice, weep, laugh and do the most absurd things – everything is allowed,” Ami Ifrah says. “My best friends are people from this group; [this] is the place where you can feel most comfortable. If you cry, nobody will ask why. And if you’re happy, nobody will say ‘He got over it,’” Ifrah adds.

The research project recently sent a comprehensive questionnaire to 200 bereaved parents in the Jerusalem area. The questions included whether they felt more comfortable among bereaved parents than among other friends; whether they could enjoy happy events; whether they heard their child’s voice or saw them; and whether they felt lonely since their loss.

Parents were also asked whether they felt despair or anxiety, guilt or anger, or if they had experienced personal growth. Another question concerned commemoration: whether parents had set up a special commemoration place in their home, or were involved in a book written about their child who had died.

According to Schiff, some parents refused to answer the questionnaire.

“I don’t know if it arouses feelings or thoughts, or perhaps it had to do with the circumstances of the loss,” she says. “Perhaps parents whose children committed suicide [during their army service], and are also taken care of by the Defense Ministry and are taking part in the study, have a harder time dealing with the questionnaire, and we’ll be checking that,” Schiff says.

The study will relate not only to responses the family describes, but also to issues such as whether the parents are involved in volunteer work or sports, and whether they have trouble sleeping.

Some of the bereaved parents hope that answering the questions will help the Defense Ministry address bereaved families’ real needs. “Those who are willing to fill out the questionnaire are also expressing a kind of faith in us,” says Aharoni, adding: “There are parents who said they were doing it for a meaningful reason. They know, unfortunately, that there will be more bereaved parents, and something good can come out of this research.”