Opinion

What's Worse: Being a Bereaved Mother or an Almost-bereaved One?

The parents of soldiers with severe brain injuries don’t 'enjoy' the respect reserved for bereaved families in Israel

An Apache helicopter.
AFP

Mothers of those with traumatic brain injuries, whose children have been left in a minimally conscious state and will never get well, don’t “enjoy” the respect reserved for bereaved families

With Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut looming, and in light of the fact that Miriam Peretz was chosen to receive the Israel Prize, and especially since during the past year I came very close to being catalogued under that loftiest of titles in Israeli society – “bereaved mother” – I’m wondering if anyone ever pondered the question of which is worse: being a bereaved mother, or being an almost-bereaved mother. For today I at least know which is “worth” less.

Contrary to every statistical likelihood, my son, who was gravely wounded in a training accident in early August 2017, is improving. His companion when the accident occurred was killed. But while we are being released from the head trauma rehabilitation department at Sheba Hospital, we still lag behind many other families, whose sons have been left in a state of what is known, rather sterilely, as “minimal consciousness.” A polite euphemism for a child that does not communicate. For a boy who was raised on devotion to his country and its values (at least the ones that were apparent up until about a decade ago), and is now a withered man confined to a wheelchair and fed through a tube, who wears a diaper and whose pee empties through a catheter -- with no way for anyone to tell what this precious son understands/is aware of/knows/sees/hears/thinks. Not even his mother.

Entire families whose lives stopped from the moment that terrible knock on the door was heard. That accursed knock, after which nothing was the same and time stood still. Families who moved themselves into hospital wards that reek of dirty adult diapers each morning, wards where broken people sit in wheelchairs, attached to them splints or metal rods, shouting in pain and from a brain stuck in a heavy fog of war. Among them are youths who just a few months ago were the pride and joy of the world’s most moral army, and now sit there wrecked, hallucinating, and all that remains is a handsome but skinnier outer wrapping, and an empty gaze. What is going on behind those eyes? Does any bit of coherent personality remain? Any kind of understanding or consciousness? There is no telling.

Unlike death, which is static and final despite its unfathomable endlessness, the families we left behind in that ward have to deal, with each inhalation and exhalation of their existence, with that cursed hope that is shattered against the rocky shores of reality minute after minute, day after day, when there is no significant progress, week after week, month after month. Years still lay before them. Long years of round-the-clock nursing care for this young man who, up until the moment he fell into this plight was brimming with strength and independence, feeling omnipotent, and has now been transformed into a full-grown baby who requires care to sustain every aspect of his existence.

Miriam Peretz and her fellow bereaved mothers are given accolades, have the red carpet rolled out for them. Their every utterance is recorded. People nod their heads, bow in respect and wipe away a tear. They deserve every bit of honor and respect, and the stories of their sons should be told and remembered, and future generations should learn about them. But bereavement is bereavement. Military bereavement is no more painful than ordinary bereavement. These mothers did not bring a sacrifice. There is no aspect here of an offering to God, aside from the cynical and political use of such political images. Their sons, too, were born and raised with love for their country, in which military duty is a duty like any other. And their sons chose, as adults, to volunteer for an elite unit, to march at the head of the column, to expose themselves to danger, and with that awful banality, to get caught in the wrong place and the wrong time. Simple as that, though it is not at all simple. And all for the glory of the State of Israel.

Mothers of the brain-damaged, whose children have been left in a state of “minimal consciousness” and will never get well, and may very well outlive their mothers in the institutions where they have been placed after the health system tells their families, in a weak voice and with a penetrating gaze, that there is nothing more it can do for its loved ones. There is no acceptance possible in such a situation, no coming to terms, no relief, no internalization, no “getting on with life despite ” There just isn’t. And on top of all that, these mothers do not “enjoy” the respect reserved in the sick Israeli culture for the holy bereaved families. On the contrary: The families of the severely brain damaged are simply forgotten. Left behind. Out of sight, out of mind. Even friends gradually stop coming around, because what else is there to say, because there is nothing they can do to help, because even well-meaning people can only stand to meet the gaze of an almost-bereaved mother for so long.

These mothers become practically invisible. Abandoned to the mercy of the government and the Defense Ministry, off the radar, losing their minds. You can be sure no one will ask them to light a ceremonial torch. There’s nothing heroic about their son’s condition that could be worshipped.

Since this wonderful and terrible life goes on, this same almost-bereaved mother could raise a grandson and encourage him to aspire to be accepted into an elite unit, or into the pilot course, or anywhere else where he can contribute to society and to his own personal enrichment. But no one will say such a thing, because the mother of someone with a severe brain injury doesn’t meet the prerequisite of perfect bereavement.

In bereavement, there are only binary numbers, it’s either zero or one. And the almost-bereaved mother isn’t even a zero. She’s totally invisible. She doesn’t exist. A vanished consciousness, just like her son. For the glory of the State of Israel.

The writer is the mother of Lieutenant A.