Helping grieving parents – through an Israeli prism

A key element in Shanun-Klein’s ideas, which she calls the ‘Readjustment Model of Parental Bereavement’ is the assertion that in order to continue living, most bereaved parents need some kind of a mission to fulfill. Dr. Henya Shanun-Klein, an experienced …

A key element in Shanun-Klein’s ideas, which she calls the ‘Readjustment Model of Parental Bereavement’ is the assertion that in order to continue living, most bereaved parents need some kind of a mission to fulfill. Dr. Henya Shanun-Klein, an experienced Israeli psychologist and university professor living in Houston, Texas was not only familiar with the accepted theories regarding grief and mourning – she taught them to her students and used them in her practice.

But all of her professional literature stopped making sense one day in 1989 when her 11-year-old daughter Gili was fatally injured by a reckless driver and died five days later. Looking at grief from the other side of the couch, she soon realized that much of what she had learned and taught as a professional just didn’t apply.

This motivated Shanun-Klein to develop a breakthrough model of grief counseling, designed expressly for professionals working with bereaved parents, which has resulted in the publication of a book and the writing and production of a play based on her life and work.

Shanun-Klein was both surprised and thrilled that a book written in English, which she wrote primarily to serve as a guide for grief counselors working with bereaved parents, has succeeded as a play written in Hebrew. She hopes that when the play is translated from the Hebrew version into other languages and the book translated to Hebrew and other languages, there will be interest in staging the play in the US and other countries as well, and many more will benefit from the book.

“It’s the kind of death for which you are least prepared, and which is the least natural,” she says of losing a child.

Because of this, she believes, many of the ‘rules’ of mourning don’t apply to parents – specifically, the theories based on stages and reaching a goal of ‘accepting the death’ and ‘moving on with life.’

While every parent is different, she found that most, like her, needed to learn to live with a lasting feeling of loss and grief. This meant, that some of what is considered unusual or bizarre behavior — like keeping a child’s room intact for years and spending time there, or having ongoing verbal conversations with a deceased child, aren’t actually strange or abnormal. They are, instead, she says, “normal reactions to an abnormal situation — an indication of continuing the bond with the deceased child — after all, a parent does not stop being a parent only because her child has died.”

Parents who lose their children, she explains, can have trouble simply existing – they can’t comprehend how they have survived what they considered an unsurvivable event.

“You tell yourself that if anything happened to your child, you would just curl up and die yourself,” she says. “Then your child dies and you look around and you can’t understand why you are still alive.”

A key element in Dr. Shanun-Klein’s theory, which she calls the ‘Readjustment Model of Parental Bereavement’ is the assertion that in order to continue living, most bereaved parents need to find new meaning to their survival; some kind of a mission to fulfill. Only then surviving turns into living.

Her personal mission is to help people adjust to living with loss. A year after Gili died, she started writing her observations of self and other grieving parents, incorporating her professional and personal knowledge into a breakthrough book: Gili?s Book, : A Journey Into Bereavement for Parents and Counselors published in 1998 by Teachers College Press, Columbia University. Later, she developed a practice specializing in grief counseling and a Web site Gili’s Place, devoted to helping parents who have lost children and to professionals working with grieving parents.

“It was one of the first sites on the Internet for those coping with death and loss and grief,” she told ISRAEL21c, proud of the accomplishment.

With the recent production of the play based on her book, Dr. Shanun-Klein’s mission has been taken a step further. Her story has been transformed into art; and her message is being spread even wider, which she is certain will help even more bereaved parents.

Gili premiered at the Israeli’s most prestigious theater – Habima Theater- Theatronetto Festival in Tel Aviv, an annual festival and competition of plays that are monologues performed by a single actor. The play took first prize and received rave reviews throughout the Israeli press. The critic for Ha’aretz, Michael Handelsalz proclaimed the play a “tour de force” and said that it left him “aching, emotionally stunned, moved to the depths of my soul, and speechless.”

The adaptation of her book into a play was the result of a chance meeting with author Orna Yakir. Shanun-Klein’s son had just purchased Yakir’s house, and Yakir returned to her former home to claim her geraniums when Shanun-Klein happened to be visiting.

Yakir remembers seeing a “fascinating-looking woman” sitting on the stairs outside the house.

“We started talking and discovered we had both written books about death. I had written a children’s book about dealing with grieving,” she told ISRAEL21c. “That was an instant connection. So we said we would exchange books. I sent her mine, which she read and she liked. Then she sent me her book. I was sure that it would be a dry, professional book — and it was in English which wasn’t my mother tongue — so I thought I’d just read a little bit and write her a nice thank-you note. But when I opened it, I couldn’t put it down until I finished it, and almost immediately, I pictured it on stage. I called her and asked her permission to adapt it, and she agreed.”

Yakir says that her play carries a universal message, and that if people believe that Israelis are somehow more familiar with the concept of losing children because of wars and terrorism, they were mistaken.

“You can lose a child from an illness, or a car accident — look at Henya,” she said. “She and her child left Israel and she ended up losing her daughter in a car accident in front of her house in America, in a ‘safe’ place. We are all fragile, in America, in Israel, and in Sweden. Because we are all human.”

Indeed, Gili died when the Israeli mother and daughter were living in Houston – where she continued to live and practice afterwards.

Today, Dr. Shanun-Klein is in the process of moving back to Israel, where her surviving son lives with his family and where she feels that through the play, she has a new family of close friends, especially Yakir.

Resigned from her faculty position at the University of Houston, having devoted herself to her practice in recent years, she is returning to Israel this autumn where she will teach Israeli university students, and will embark on new pioneer projects: founding a school for grief studies and a center for bereaved children and their families.

In the staging of the play at Habima, Sarit Vino-Elad the actress portraying Shanun-Klein, captures her strong yet vulnerable personality.

First the audience sees her crisp professional persona, lecturing to her classroom of students, and then is introduced to the distraught, broken mother amid her little girl’s bedroom furniture, which, five years after her death, she hasn?t been able to bring herself to pack away. The play shows Shanun-Klein’s ongoing dialogue with her deceased daughter, bringing to life her theories regarding parental bereavement.

The story of Yakir and Shanun-Klein’s partnership and friendship took a tragic twist in the final weeks of the rehearsal process, when Yakir, only 40, was diagnosed with breast cancer that had metastasized to other locations in her body.

Yakir began radiation treatments immediately, but asked for her chemotherapy to be postponed until after she could attend the play’s dress rehearsal premiere and see her work onstage.
Yakir insisted on attending the dress rehearsal and the premiere and all shows, arriving from her hospital bed, and returning there afterwards. But although she made some of the trips in a wheelchair, she returned to the hospital happy. “This play has given me a feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment that is so rare and exciting. No illness can ruin that for me.”