Surfing Away the Sadness of Losing a Sibling to War or Terror

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Shira Merhavia, left, and Dina Ankonina on their surfboards.
Shira Merhavia, left, and Dina Ankonina on their surfboards. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Ofra Edelman
Ofra Edelman
Ofra Edelman
Ofra Edelman

Every Friday morning a group of women in their 20s and 30s meet at Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium Beach to go surfing. Their surfboards’ shiny spots of color shimmer on the water, and their surfing outfits add more hue to the view. When a wave approaches they paddle toward it with rapid movements, and when the moment is right they leap onto their surfboards to ride the wave. When they succeed, big happy smiles spread across their faces.

Behind it all a deep sadness lies.

All the 20 or so women have lost brothers in war or in terrorist attacks. Three of them – Tali Muskal, Shira Merhavia and Dina Ankonina – will soon be marking 10 years since their brothers were killed in the Second Lebanon War.

Refanael Muskal of Mazkeret Bayta was 20 when he was killed in the Egoz unit’s battle at Maroun a-Ras. He was one of the first casualties of the war. His sister Tali was 27 at the time. Amichai Merhavia, 24, of the West Bank settlement of Eli, was killed in battle in Bint J’beil as a member of the Golani Brigade. His sister Shira was then 22. Yonatan Ankonina, 21, of Netanya, was killed in a Golani battle in the Lebanese village of Hadatha, shortly before a cease-fire ending the fighting. His sister, Dina, was then 16.

Each woman remembers very well the moment they learned of their brother’s death. Muskal’s father woke her up and said, “Get up and get dressed; something terrible has happened to us.” In a daze, she served refreshments to the Israel Defense Forces representatives who brought them the news, moving about on autopilot. It took 12 hours for what happened to really sink in, she said.

Merhavia was busy studying for a university exam when her father called about her brother. The importance of the test evaporated in an instant. Ankonina had been crying bitterly that the summer vacation was almost over and she hadn’t done anything interesting yet. A few hours later word of her brother’s death turned her world on its head.

Tali Muskal.Credit: Assaf Halevi

All three women join the surfers every Friday, of the group set up by the Tikvot organization three years ago. The nonprofit association works to rehabilitate wounded soldiers, terror victims, bereaved siblings and paratroopers’ orphans through extreme sports.

There, among the waves, the trio finds women who understand their situation with no explanation required. It’s not a support group in the usual sense – there is no facilitator and no structured discussion – but the friendships forged among those who have lost loved ones under similar circumstances provide a network of support. Before memorial ceremonies and birthdays they share their plans and experiences, laugh, cry, and draw strength from each other; cynicism and black humor also play a role.

“Part of the purpose is these friendships,” says Muskal. “It’s a type of shared destiny.”

Merhavia finds their meetings important even if the conversation lags. “The knowledge that there’s someone going through what you’re going through and chooses to move on, cope, and challenge themselves is empowering enough,” she says. “You don’t have to explain anything. For a period of time you can escape the complexities of life and just be.” Indeed, not everyone comes to every meeting, but on the Fridays before and after memorial days, everyone shows up.

According to Muskal, the Defense Ministry relates to siblings as the second circle of bereavement, after the parents, even though they are really in the first circle. That’s what makes the group so important. “The fact that there’s something special for bereaved siblings means that they see us,” she says. “To some degree we have a place.”

The need for such a place was not always self-evident to them.

“I’m used to being the one who volunteers,” says Merhavia. “You don’t feel like a nebbish and that someone has to help you.” Muskal didn’t quite understand at first why she was being offered all sorts of benefits. “It takes time to internalize the place of a bereaved sibling,” she says.

The women draw parallels between surfing and coping with grief.

Shira Merhavia, left, and Dina Ankonina on their surfboards.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“To get up on a surfboard you need a lot of strength,” says Muskal.

Ankonina adds: “You crash into the waves but in the end you cope with them and learn to ride them, as with any obstacle.”

Merhavia finds that the need to join the activity every week has taught her that, “If you want to succeed, you have to persevere and not give up or give in.”

When they succeed, there is enormous satisfaction. “I come out grinning from ear to ear,” says Muskal. “All of life’s vicissitudes dissolve in the water.”

One of the insights they’ve gained from the past decade is that the pain will be with them forever. Muskal recalls one gathering of bereaved siblings she’d attended. “I expected to see people my age there, but there were people in their 50s and 60s. Suddenly I realized that they’ve been living with this their whole lives,” she says.

Indeed, age is a sensitive point. To this day, when Ankonina, who’s 26, is asked how old she is, she says she’s 17, “because it’s an issue to have surpassed my brother’s age.”

Muskal, 37, says the passage of time hit her recently when she saw a picture of Refanael with her younger brother and both of them looked like little kids to her. “As far as I’m concerned, he went to the army and time hasn’t moved. It’s a downer to understand what might have happened these past 10 years,” she says.

Amichai Merhavia, Refanael Muskal, and Yonatan Ankonina.Credit: Courtesy

During Operation Protective Edge in Gaza two years ago, the women were very somber. When the ground incursion into Gaza began, Muskal thought fearfully: It’s going to happen again. When she began to hear about the first soldiers who were killed, it all seemed too familiar.

According to Ankonina, “During the war in Lebanon I didn’t get it, I thought ‘Cool, there’s a war, soldiers go in and come out.’” During the war in Gaza, she grasped that there were people and families behind the numbers, “And suddenly it became much more difficult.”

The passage of time has not changed their outlooks on their brothers’ deaths. Religious faith also helped them accept the loss. “I’m not critical,” says Ankonina. “It comes from belief. He was meant to go at 21.”

“He didn’t fall for no reason; he fell in defense of the homeland,” Muskal says.

Merhavia adds that “there’s something very liberating about not asking questions; it only sinks you. [Political] questions don’t enter into the equation as far as I’m concerned. In my view there’s something comforting in the loss of my brother because he was fighting for the country.”

As we are speaking, Ankonina is alarmed at the sight of someone who looks like her brother on the beach. For a second she really believes it’s him. But at the end of the interview, the cynicism creeps in. “So that’s it?” she asks. “Are we ending this with ‘Hativka’ [the national anthem]?”

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