Dear Deceased

"My Beloved Mualem," by Shuli Mualem, Yedioth Ahronoth Publishing House and Hemed Books, 222 pages, NIS 68.

"My Beloved Mualem," by Shuli Mualem, Yedioth Ahronoth Publishing House and Hemed Books, 222 pages, NIS 68

"My Beloved Mualem" is a collection of letters written by Shuli Mualem, widow of Lieutenant Colonel Moshe Mualem, commander of the Beaufort battalion, who was killed in the twin helicopter crash over the rural community of Sha'ar Yishuv in February 1997, together with 72 other Israeli soldiers.

Shuli wrote these letters to her dead husband beginning on the day of the disaster and throughout a three-year period until the day in May 2000 when the Israel Defense Forces blew up the Beaufort outpost and withdrew from Lebanon. Immediately following the crash, Shuli wrote every day; however, the frequency gradually dropped until she finally stopped writing altogether: "When I saw the Beaufort explode, I felt that something inside me died - and that included my ability to write to Mualem ... Now that the Beaufort has been blown up, no one, not even Mualem, will ever be able to return from there ..."

At the realistic level, explains Shuli, she and Moshe were used to writing letters to one another. Even when they were in close physical proximity, she would leave him letters in a desk drawer or in a book (as she noted in an interview she gave on Memorial Day this year). After their final separation in the wake of the crash, she continued to write him letters, following a path they had created when he was alive. At the psychological level, the letters serve as a channel for internal communication with the deceased, as a way of "working out" his death.

The twin-track model of bereavement that is accepted in psychology today (for example, "Psychology" by S. Rubin, 1995, Hebrew only), relates to two aspects of the process of grieving: the functional, behavioral-psychological aspect (which includes the funeral, memorial services and perpetuation of the departed's memory), and the aspect involving the bereaved person's internal connection with the departed (which includes internal dialogues, dreams, writing memoirs, keeping a diary and letter-writing).

Writing letters to a dead person can be interpreted in two ways: as a method of processing the death through the maintenance of a dialogue with the departed or, alternatively, as a mechanism by which the mourner denies the beloved's death, that is, the expression of a grief that is not being processed. One sometimes hears the second interpretation in sentences that Shuli writes to her dead husband, such as: "Please help me, I am in the middle of a crisis and I desperately need you - I don't care what has happened ... you must help me ..."; or, "Despite everything, I await your return ..."; or even the absurd question, "Will you come to console me over my having lost you?"

Focusing on the `other'

Writing letters that will never be mailed, as a means of treating emotional distress, is a familiar phenomenon in clinical care: It is a method of liberating feelings related to certain important experiences, of organizing thoughts and, at the same, of relating to the "other," instead of focusing only on oneself. There are frequent references in the professional literature to the phenomenon of children writing to their (sexually or emotionally) abusive parent. The letter is never mailed, either because the parent is already dead or because the letter-writer prefers not to open up old wounds.

An example of letter-writing as a means of coping with trauma is the letter written by 15-year-old Ray to his two brothers who were killed in a traffic accident. He read this letter out at their memorial service. In the letter, he tells his two older and much-loved brothers that he is keeping their memory alive by doing everything that they wanted him to do. Sometimes, he admits, he feels so sad because he misses them so much (in Michael White and David Epston, "Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends," 1990).

Mira L.K.'s "Atalia's Journals" (Cherikover) appeared in 1998. The book is based on letters that a woman writes to an infant girl who has not yet been born and whose birth is uncertain in the woman's eyes: "I thought that perhaps I might be able to bring a child into the world to bring you, Atalia, to the point of physical realization, however I am not sure whether I will ever be able to do so ..."

Regarding the efficacy of letter-writing as a therapeutic technique, Shuli herself testifies: "I may perhaps be consoling myself through the writing of these letters." In the interview referred to above, she says that she had the feeling as if she were writing, on one hand, to someone else - and, on the other, to herself. In other words, this form of letter-writing is a dialogue with the self and, according to psychoanalytical theories, it is a dialogue between different parts of one's personality.

After her father's death, Shuli decided that she would once more start writing letters - as she had done after her husband's death - in order to cope with her father's passing.

In her letters to Moshe, Shuli presents in a frank manner the very private world that she shared with her late husband, and exposes many aspects of that world to the reader. There is more than one explanation that can be offered for her motives here. One explanation is that her letter-writing is a means of perpetuating her husband's memory and that her goal is to ensure that her fallen husband will become a permanent fixture in the collective memory, and that his personality and actions will be forever cherished.

On the other hand, it could be argued that her letter-writing is a way of calling for help, of "mobilizing" understanding - and thereby emotional and social support - for her and her daughters, and of verifying that this support will continue in the future. She was not a witness to the disaster: The soldiers' deaths did not take place in the presence of the members of their families. Nor was she involved in the identification of her dead husband's body. Nonetheless, her bereavement is not a private matter and it is important for her that as many people as possible attend the memorial services for her husband and the joint commemorative ceremonies for the victims of the crash.

Process of liberation

Her many activities aimed at perpetuating Moshe's memory in all possible areas - through memorial services, birthdays, publication of the book, etc. - strengthen Shuli and constitute, in her eyes, proof that she is successfully coping with her grief. In the interview mentioned above, when asked what Moshe would say about these activities, she replied, "You are simply great, Shuli!" The publication of the book is part of a process in which Shuli is liberating herself from her husband so that she can close this chapter in her life. Whereas his death expresses her helplessness, her letter-writing and her other acts of commemoration express her strength.

The concrete events that have taken place since Moshe's death - the IDF's withdrawal from Lebanon and the blowing-up of the Beaufort - symbolize the finality of that process: If Moshe's "home," the Beaufort, has been destroyed, that means that he will never return. From the standpoint of the process, the letter-writing stops when the signs point to the fact that Moshe will not be part of her future: "I love you very much, yet I am also looking for another love ..."

Perhaps another reason for the termination of the letter-writing to Moshe is that reality has forced her to contend with a second death, her father's: "Everything inside my head has become a sort of inner tumult centered around my father. I will say good-bye to you here ..."

The book illustrates with immense sincerity and with rare intensity the complex process of bereavement. The shock: "Perhaps this is some sort of mistake. Perhaps all this is only a figment of my imagination. Yet the television screen was filled with sights and sounds concerning the catastrophe ..." The doubts: "I am not part of this, nor is Mualem a part of all this ..." The realization of the truth: "73 soldiers, and my beloved among them, have all died in the crash. The time is out of joint, my end is fast approaching, it's all over, and that is what is so difficult to accept ..."

In the twisting and turning path of bereavement, the mourner generally seeks some sort of explanation: Why? Why did you have to die? Why did you of all people have to die? Why did you have to die in this manner? Why did you have to die so young?

One of the processes that individuals experience at moments of loss is to conduct a lightning-quick survey of their lives: People who have lost a limb survey their lives until the moment of the grim event. People who have lost someone who was very dear to them and people who are on the verge of death (as we can understand from the testimony of individuals in this situation) see their lives unfold before their eyes like a movie screened at high speed.

Bitter longing

In "My Beloved Mualem," Shuli surveys her life with Moshe from the moment of their meeting - the encounter between a religious woman and a secular man - and mentions all the difficulties and major concessions made by each of them in order to remain together. The survey embraces conjugality and parenthood. The story of Shuli and Moshe ends with his death. There is also the element of negotiating with one's fate: "I would give anything in the world to be able to see you again, even if it is for the last time." There is also the bitter longing: "I think I will go stark raving mad," and "I miss the fragrance of your body, I miss your smile that always drove me wild, I miss your lips."

The process of Shuli's making peace with her fate is multi-staged. At the memorial service on the first anniversary of his death, she begins to finally comprehend that he will never return. When she opens his "fallen soldier's file," this realization becomes more concrete. Finally, when the IDF blows up the Beaufort outpost, "something broke forever" (from the interview).

Then there is the coming to terms with the loss: "The longing is maddening and my heart is torn apart by the knowledge that apparently you will never come back." With great sensitivity, she refers to the pain of missed opportunities: "The children who will never be born. I will never have another child with you. The long lonely nights, our conjugal relationship that has been ripped up in the middle of its flourishing." "I miss you with my entire body there are still some things that I can do only with you." "What would have happened if you had not died? How happy I would be today if you were still alive." "Life goes on, but it's not the same thing." "I feel that I could just explode over the fact that you are no longer here."

There is also the attempt to find consolation: "I am so grateful for the good life we shared. My chief consolation is our young daughters and your memory that will accompany me forever." "Mualem was killed in the same spot where he had chosen to live, with the people he loved and valued."

Shuli oscillates between the desire to continue living for her young daughters and moments of despair and despondence, moments when death appears to be the only solution. The book presents the way people deal with bereavement: This is a struggle that demands bereaved individuals to contend with conflicting needs and emotions - the need to mourn versus the need to continue functioning, the focus on the past versus the constraints of the present, the feelings of weakness versus the need to mobilize one's inner strength so as to avoid collapsing, the anger directed toward the departed loved one for having abandoned the mourner versus the idealization of the dead beloved and the realization that he or she could not have prevented the death.

The letters also graphically illustrate the dramatic shifts along the Sisyphean path of grief: Sometimes Shuli feels that she is contending effectively with her bereavement and that she has made peace with it. But then she is inundated by a giant wave of weakness and despair that erases all her attempts to live with her mourning. Or, a display of strength that turns out to have been a mirage of courage and which ends with faltering feet.

As the member of a bereaved family - my only brother, Major Yeshayahu Makovsky, fell in the Yom Kippur War - I found "My Beloved Mualem" to be an apt translation into words of my experiences and emotions, which were hard for me to express verbally or define. The unprocessed outburst of the pain, the scream, alongside the attempt to understand and to make peace with such a terrible loss render this book an authentic, human document that reflects the painful reality faced by Israel's bereaved families, which, in essence, constitute one large grieving family.

Dr. Edna Katzenelson, a clinical psychologist, teaches at Tel Aviv's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and is the author of "Parents, Children and What Stands Between Them" (in Hebrew), printed by the Parents and Children publishing house.