I am back in my home town. Today I made a shiva call — to complete strangers.
The deceased was a young Jewish man, age 24, who was a member of the United States Air Force. He was killed in Afghanistan on January 5, and was brought home for burial on January 17. Besides the obvious tragedy – – a son, a brother, and a grandson is dead – – there were so many things that struck me about this loss.
For many blocks leading up to the shiva house, the neighbors had lined the streets with hundreds of small American flags, to honor the young man’s service and to express solidarity with the soldier’s family. Inside the home, there were many friends and family gathered, as well as veterans who didn’t know the young man at all but wished to express their condolences (“In the military, all soldiers are family,” said one gentile veteran in his 80s). Unfortunately, the family has had to contend with much grief this year, as the maternal grandfather passed away a couple of months ago, and the paternal grandmother is in hospice, given only days to live. The soldier’s only sibling, a brother, is gay, so the parents will never merit walking a child to the chuppah, nor know the joy of grandchildren – – so the enormity of the tragedy is even more profound.
What can you say to such a loss? All the comments were appropriate, yet in no way could they console fully nor make it right. “You must be so proud of your son.” ” I am so sorry for your loss.” “Thank you for his service to our country.” “I am sorry and humbled that he had to make the ultimate sacrifice.”
This particular young man had looked to the military to find his path in life, and it seemed that indeed he had found his calling there. He was trained to do a specialized task that demanded skill and courage and he performed it with tremendous enthusiasm. He loved the physical and tactical challenges, the camaraderie with his fellow soldiers, and he truly did believe in the necessity of protecting the freedom of all Americans by fighting for it when necessary. Whenever he was in contact with his parents from afar, they noted how happy he sounded, and how proud he was to serve in the military. He wasn’t at it for very long, however: in the summer he was in Basic Training in Texas, in the Fall he went for additional training in Colorado, and in December he was deployed to Afghanistan, where only a month later he was killed by an explosive device.
What can you say to complete strangers to comfort them, beyond the traditional “HaMakom Yinachem Eschem B’Toch Shaar Avlei Tziyon V’Yerushalyim: May God’s presence comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem” ?
I came because I’m a Jewish mother. I came because I’m an American. I came because I’m a quasi-military mom (my son-in-law is a Chaplain and Major in the United States Air Force).
I came because I’m so glad it wasn’t my child, and am so sad that it is theirs.