When tragedy strikes and children grieve
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When tragedy strikes and children grieve

This hand-written message and flowers were left at the site where Miriam Avraham was killed. James L. Janoff

In the wake of a car accident last week that claimed the life of a 10-year-old girl and left a 14-year-old boy in intensive care, parents, psychologists, and school administrators are struggling to explain death and mourning to their students.

Miriam Avraham had just landed the role of Golda in her school’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Staff at New Milford’s Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, which Miriam attended, described the sixth-grader from Fair Lawn as “a lovely actress.” Miriam was killed last week when a stolen car tore through her family’s Honda at the intersection of New Bridge Road and The Boulevard in New Milford while they were on their way to a sukkah party at the child’s school.

Miriam Avraham

Death can be difficult for anyone, but especially so for children, who tend to hold innocent views of the world and its fairness. Solomon Schechter’s students must confront the loss of one of their own, while students at The Frisch School in Paramus must deal with Miriam’s 14-year-old brother, Shachar, and 14-year-old Avraham family friend Eric Brauner, who was critically injured during the crash. Both are Frisch freshmen.

“When I was in high school you went to school to get educated,” said Rabbi John Krug, dean of student life at The Frisch School and a clinical psychologist. “Schools today really have emerged as communal institutions. You’re really concerned with the moral development, psychological development…. The Jewish school is really emerging as the central piece of communal life for these kids.”

That sense of community can help children through the mourning process. At The Frisch School, grief counselors have been on call since Friday, even though the school was on break for Sukkot. Counselors are also helping prepare students for shiva visits so that they can support their classmate during his mourning.

“It’s important to talk factually to kids,” said Ilana Kustanowitz, middle school psychologist at Solomon Schechter, which has been providing ways for its students to grieve together.

“It’s never easy,” Krug said. “It’s a real challenge for everybody here. We’re trying to take care of our kids the best we can.”

What to expect from your child

Some children may express themselves with tears, some with nervous laughter, while others may not feel anything at all. The important thing to remember, said Kustanowitz, is that “everything is normal. Everything is acceptable.

“Any range of emotion is appropriate,” she said. “For the kids who didn’t cry, it’s OK they didn’t cry.”

Last Friday morning, the day after the accident, Schechter’s sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders met with rabbis, social workers, and psychologists. Before breaking into small groups, the sixth-graders gathered in a circle.

“It allowed them to grieve together,” Kustanowitz said. “We saw it was very therapeutic for them to sit together.”

Krug said death raises theological concerns as well as questions about mortality. “One of the major things that happens is the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness,” he said.

To counter that, he suggested some form of community service or tribute to the deceased.

“There’s a lot of energy out there that can be harnessed,” he said.

Students at Solomon Schechter wanted to hang a picture and signs of remembrance on Miriam’s locker there. Some students also wanted to keep her desk vacant for the rest of the year, while others wanted it to be used again.

“They wanted us to do something concrete,” Kustanowitz said. “Through communicating with each other, they were starting to feel better.”

As a result of the accident, some students have expressed new fears of riding in cars or driving down New Bridge Road. These are valid fears, Kustanowitz said, and it is important for parents to listen to their children.

“Allow them to share how they feel at their own pace and not feel pressure to feel a certain way,” she said. “Just because other children are feeling sad and crying doesn’t mean they have to feel that way.”

Shiva and mourning

When he spoke during Miriam’s funeral on Friday, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Fair Lawn’s Cong. Shomrei Torah reminded mourners that every person comes into this world with a purpose.

A large crowd attended Miriam’s funeral. Josh lipowsky

“You have a mission in this world. What is our mission? Nobody knows. We don’t know…. This is what you have to believe when you light Shabbos candles today. This is what you have to believe when you make kiddush tonight. God does not take anybody until they fulfill their mission. That is the message of today.”

When speaking to children about death, it is especially important to remind them that death is a part of life, Yudin said on Monday.

“The key thing is this world is not the end-all,” he said. “While you’re here, you have a responsibility to lead your life in the best way possible. These are basic facts kids need to hear again and again.”

One of the central messages repeated every day in the Amidah prayer is the idea that God will eventually restore life to the dead.

“It means the person who has died – they’re only temporarily gone from us,” Yudin said.

These are positive ideas that children can embrace, Yudin said. But even with this in mind, mourners feel a sense of loss.

“We mourn for ourselves,” Yudin said. “We know the person’s going to a better place. For that person we’re not mourning. We’re mourning because our life is going to be devoid [of that person].”

These feelings are natural, and the Torah allows for that, he added. The Torah does, however, forbid excessive mourning. One way of protecting against this can be found in the shiva process.

The shiva mourning period is a psychological response, Yudin said. After the death of a loved one the average person might become despondent or reclusive, shunning friends and family. Shiva helps keep the mourner grounded and engaged.

“The idea behind this is we’re not going to allow you to sit in your room and mope because that’s not a Jewish response,” Yudin said.

Where is God?

Noting that death can shake one’s faith, Yudin turned his attention to the subject during the funeral.

“It’s easy to believe in God when things are good,” he said. “That’s not belief. It’s when the lilah [night] comes. Right now the sun is shining but right now, for all of us, it’s lilah, it’s nighttime. We can’t see. We can’t understand. Now is when you need your faith. Now is when you have to sit in your sukkah. The sukkah says I trust God. I eat a piece of matzoh at the Passover seder, what does it mean? I trust God although I don’t understand.”

Even those with the strongest faith may have that faith shaken when confronted with untimely death. Children who have been taught to believe in a just God may begin to question those lessons, but that is part of the process of faith, said Rabbi Ronald Roth of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel.

“Faith in God doesn’t mean we’re going to be physically protected from the ills of the world,” he said. “To question one’s faith is a very natural thing to do.”

Some may look at the accident and see different people to blame – the criminal who sped through New Milford, the police for chasing him at high speeds through a residential area, or even God.

Roth laid the blame squarely at the feet of the driver. “I don’t see this in any way, shape, or form as part of God’s plan, and it’s OK to say that to a kid,” he said.

“What we have to do is help and support each other and find where is God at this time,” he continued. “God is in our ability to comfort and support.”

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Driver’s arraignment set

Harold Saenz, the 22-year-old Bergenfield man who crashed into the Avrahams’ car, was scheduled to be arraigned in Hackensack on Thursday on charges of aggravated manslaughter, first-degree felony murder, second-degree aggravated assault, and third-degree burglary.

According to police reports, Saenz stole a Mercedes last Thursday evening from a Bergenfield resident who had left his keys in the ignition. The resident and police gave chase. Saenz was allegedly speeding down New Bridge Road in New Milford when he struck the Avrahams’ Honda, which was torn in half, with Miriam Avraham and 14-year-old family friend Eric Brauner in the back seat.

Miriam’s mother, Helene Avraham, and her 14-year-old brother, Shachar, were in the front seats. They were treated for light injuries and released later that night. Eric remained in critical condition at Hackensack University Medical Center as of Monday. Miriam’s father, Moshe, was not in the car.

The Frisch School’s principal, Dr. Kalman Stein, asks that Eric be kept in people’s prayers for a quick recovery. His Hebrew name is Aviezer Barukh ben Minda Zahava.

Josh Lipowsky

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