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Three Mothers, and a Grief So Deep It Cuts to the Core

December 27, 2007 By:
Carin M. Smilk, JE Feature
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At a recent program at WHYY offices, three panelists with a terrible commonality discuss their losses: (from left) Sherri Mandell, Kathleen O'Hara and Dorothy Johnson-Speight.

The program was billed as "In the Spirit of Family: The Universal Language of Grief."

But there is nothing at all universal in the way the participating panelists have suffered, and words have provided little solace; for them, ordinary language just doesn't translate.

What the three middle-aged women who sat on a podium together late last month do have in common is a profound and lingering sentiment: a grief so deep it cuts to the core of their being.

Here are their stories:

In December 2001, Dorothy Johnson-Speight's 24-year-old son, Khaaliq, was shot seven times in Philadelphia after an argument over a parking space. The University of Maryland sociology major had won a scholarship to graduate school and was planning to work with kids at risk.

On Memorial Day 1999, Kathleen O'Hara's son Aaron and a friend were abducted from their off-campus residence at the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and then beaten, tortured, taken into the woods in nearby Pennsylvania and shot to death.

On May 8, 2001, Sherri Mandell's son Yaakov ("Koby"), 13, and his friend, Yosef Ishran, 14, skipped school to hike near their home in Tekoa, southeast of Jerusalem. They were found bludgeoned to death in a cave; their blood smeared on its walls. The family had moved to Israel from the United States years earlier.

The program took place in the spacious lobby of the WHYY building in Center City -- a joint effort between WHYY's "Children's Service" and 91FM's "Voices in the Family" series, with support from the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia.

It was partially geared, of course, to the city's rising homicide rate, which has hit nearly 400, one of the highest, per capita, rates in the country. Indeed, a number of audience members were parents who themselves had lost children this year.

The discussion was moderated by psychologist Dan Gottlieb, host of "Voices in the Family" and a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, who opened the evening with a startling statistic: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide represents the second leading cause of death among young people ages 18 to 24.

'Worst Pain in the World'
So, posed Gottlieb, what happens to families who lose a child to violence?

The question was directed to Johnson-Speight, who replied, "sometimes, I still have flashbacks, especially at this time of the year. It's the worst pain in the world -- you wake up with it in the morning and go to bed with it at night. Every day is a challenge -- how to live with the pain, how to go on."

For her, that challenge led to the creation of an organization in 2003 called Mothers in Charge, aimed at preventing violence in Philadelphia and its environs. It promotes youth and family education and intervention, and works with elected officials on legislation to support safe neighborhoods. What began with three mothers has grown to some 300 members.

Mandell also spoke of an insufferable pain -- or more specifically, "a kind of madness. It's like a wild animal trying to destroy you."

For a long time, she said, she didn't know what to do with it, and likened her emotions to her son's experience in that cave: "You're all alone, in the dark, and there's no way out."

Relief also came in the form of action; she and her family established the Koby Mandell Foundation in 2002, which runs healing programs for Israelis who have lost parents, siblings and spouses to war or terrorism. The foundation sponsors Camp Koby, its flagship program, for children, as well as retreats for grieving mothers and widows.

Mandell acknowledged that this work -- coupled with her book, The Blessing of a Broken Heart -- has served as a salve to her persistent pain.

At the same time, she noted, "feeling better feels like a betrayal. Feeling better feels like I'm losing Koby. With time, he almost evaporates."

With the audience of about 100 people transfixed, O'Hara -- a therapist, victim's rights activist and author of A Grief Like No Other -- added that with such a death, "there's no time to say goodbye. And there's the thought that someone had done this; this did not have to happen."

"Murder is something totally different," affirmed Johnson-Speight. And she would know: In 1986, she lost a 3-year-old daughter to bacterial meningitis.

The deliberate taking of life, explained the speakers, brought about all kinds of other issues, like rage, thoughts of vengeance and a side effect -- the attention of the media. Their children's deaths became undeniably public, and as a result, so did they.

"It's what you do with the anger," insisted Johnson-Speight. "You try to live a healthy, normal life, as much as it can be that way."

However, she admitted, "there were times I literally thought I was not going to take another breath. I wasn't going to make it."

"Is it going to destroy you or transform you?" added O'Hara. "I think you have a conscious choice. We may think there's no meaning, but there is."

"We can create a choice for ourselves," echoed Mandell.

"There are mothers who can take their experience and rise from it. Pain is a teacher; it can elevate you. There is a beauty to it" -- though, she quickly added, "it's not a beauty I want."

Johnson-Speight agreed with that notion: "This is not something we would have chosen. We touch our own pain every day with the work that we do. But if I can offer hope to another mother in despair, then it makes it worth it."

And where, asked Gottlieb, did she see herself and her particular group in relation to long-term violence prevention, in the next five years, for example?

"Five years from now, I hope we're out of business," she said.

And with that, the moderator sanctioned her statement: "In Judaism, we say, 'From your mouth to God's ears.' "

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