September 19, 2012
A family in grief chooses life
In July, Ivonne Goldberg was at the park with her 3-year-old son, Mikey, and with Nofar Mekonen, a sunny 14-year-old girl visiting from Israel. Nofar was chatting on and on about her trip to Los Angeles, her family, her school.
“Where did you get your English?” Ivonne asked her, amazed at Nofar’s fluency.
“It’s thanks to Ariela that I have this English,” Nofar answered.
Ivonne’s heart swelled hearing Nofar’s answer.
Nofar was referring to the Ariela Foundation, an organization that helps highly motivated and gifted young Israelis of Ethiopian origin, like Nofar, get the extra support and guidance they need to thrive. The Ariela Foundation provides Nofar with English and math tutoring, as well as science enrichment and a mentor.
The foundation is named for Ivonne and Daniel Goldberg’s daughter, who died in a drowning accident five years ago, when she was 19 months old.
When Nofar, or the 60 other young people being aided by the foundation, talk about how Ariela has helped them, they usually use just the girl’s name, not “The Ariela Foundation.” And each time the Goldbergs hear what Ariela has accomplished, Ivonne and Daniel feel empowered and proud, knowing that their daughter, who brought so much joy to their lives, is still affecting others in a positive way.
Daniel’s brother, Eric, runs the Ariela Foundation from Israel, and Daniel and Ivonne spend considerable hours working for Ariela US, an independent nonprofit that raises funds to support Ariela’s programs.
“When you go through such a difficult experience, you of course reassess your priorities,” Daniel said. “The desire to do something good to express your loss in a positive way becomes very strong. We heard about using all those feelings as a motor for change, to express your loss by helping others,” Daniel said.
[For more on the Ariela Foundation, read 'Ariela’s legacy gives others direction, purpose']
The Ariela Foundation is just one avenue through which the Goldbergs have found a way to continue living positively and with purpose.
Ivonne and Daniel Goldberg said they were open to all paths of healing after the June 2007 accident.
For those who might think, “I could never go on after something like that,” the Goldbergs offer an example of how to go on.
With depth and spirit, Daniel and Ivonne, and their children, Ilan, Talia and Michael — ages 15, 12 and 3 — have worked to heal themselves, and in the process they have become an inspiration to the friends, family and communities that surround them (among whom I count myself).
They have not denied their pain or hidden from it. But, at the same time, they have chosen to live. And through that choice they have affirmed their belief in their marriage and their family, they have turned to God and to people, and they have learned how to be joyous.
They have asserted that life is stronger than death, that giving is stronger than what was taken from them.
On Yom Kippur, when tradition demands that we examine how we live, the Goldberg family is a model for how circumstances — even nightmarish circumstances — don’t have to upend guiding convictions that are backed by unwavering values.
“We heard that a very difficult or tragic experience can have a strong effect, and it can be either positive or negative. Families can either split apart or grow together,” Daniel said, holding the hand of his wife as they sat on their living-room couch on a recent morning. “So we made an immediate decision that we were going to go through this together and become stronger as a family — in memory of our daughter and for all of us. And making that decision was very important, because it directs your actions toward that goal.”
They said they were willing to try anything anyone suggested that might make them whole again — therapy, support groups, prayer, yoga, spiritual counseling, charity, community support.
“One of the things we heard, but it takes a long time to understand, is that you can be both happy and sad at the same time, and being very sad doesn’t prevent you from expressing happiness,” said Daniel, 50, a documentary filmmaker currently working on a film about Crypto-Jews in Mexico and the Southwest United States — people who retained traditions although their ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism centuries ago.
The Goldbergs are originally from Mexico City. They moved to Toronto in 2003 and to Los Angeles in 2005 — just a few months before Ariela was born. Ivonne, 44, is a clinical psychologist who worked in schools and private practice before she stopped working to care for her family.
“It makes me feel very happy to talk about Ariela,” Ivonne said.
She holds a small stack of Ariela’s baby books and albums on her lap.
She flips open a calendar titled “Our New Baby Daughter,” in which she meticulously documented small milestones in Ariela’s life on pink-polka-dot framed pages, starting with Ariela’s birth in November 2005.
Ariela had her mother’s big brown eyes and springy curls, and a spark that brought immense joy to the whole family.
“She loved music,” Daniel said. “From the moment she was able to stand up, she started to dance whenever there was any type of music.”
Ariela and Talia, who was 6 when Ariela was born, shared a room, and Ivonne would often open the door in the morning to find them snuggling together in the crib. Ivonne had always wanted Talia to have a sister.
Ivonne thumbs through the books and albums as she talks, wearing the wistful smile of a mother who knows she’ll never get back those early days. Sometimes the tears flow, especially when she talks about the two sisters together.
“I got some very good advice in the beginning. Someone told me if the pain comes, let it be, and it will pass. Don’t resist it,” Ivonne said. “That was very wise.”
On a Thursday in June 2007, Ariela fell into the pool in the family’s Beverlywood backyard. She lived for four days in the hospital connected to life support.
Through that blur of days, the Goldberg’s school and synagogue communities converged in the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center waiting room, holding prayer vigils, bringing food and keeping the family company. Friends and family flew in from Canada, Mexico and Israel. Ivonne talked to Ariela constantly, and Ilan and Talia hung drawings in her room and sang to her.
But although one doctor said he had seen miracles in these kinds of cases, most doctors offered little hope. The whole family came to say goodbye when it was clear she would not survive.
Daniel remembers vividly what Ilan, then 10, said to his sister.
“Ariela, you are going to go up to heaven, and you are going to be very close to God,” Daniel recalled, speaking through tears. “And in heaven, you are going to meet the souls of great people. You’re going to meet the souls of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and you are going to meet the soul of Moshe. Please thank them for giving us the Torah.”
Talia, 8, showered her sister in kisses.
“We’re going to give you many, many kisses,” she told her sister, “so you can take them with you, and keep them very close to your heart, and every time you miss us, you can take one of these kisses and put it on your heart,” Daniel remembered.
“It is hard to describe in words,” Daniel said. “We were devastated. We felt this emptiness, this void that nothing could ever fill. But at the same time, we knew we had to be strong for our two older kids. Friends told us, ‘You have to be strong. You have to continue living and get up for your children. They will help you. Taking care of them will help you.’ ”
The house teemed with visitors during the shivah, the seven-day mourning period. Many had advice that Ivonne and Daniel couldn’t absorb at the time but came back to later.
“One piece of advice we heard was that only God brings consolation. And we understood that God brings consolation through people,” Daniel recalls. The Goldberg kids attend Pressman Academy, and they are members of Temple Beth Am and B’nai David-Judea. Both communities stepped in with tremendous support and deep friendship, Ivonne said.
Particularly helpful were visitors — strangers, mostly — who had themselves lost children.
One visitor had lost his daughter about 10 years before. He said he thought of his pain as a sheet of paper. “Sometimes he folds it up neatly and puts it in his pocket. It’s still there, but it’s all folded up. And sometimes he opens it up if he has to,” Daniel said. “He said there is always something that brings up the pain, so you have to accept it, but then you are able to fold it back up and put it in a different compartment.”
Perspective often came from unexpected sources, such as Ilan.
“One person during shivah came to us and said, ‘I’m sorry something so bad happened to you.’ And Ilan was sitting on the armrest next to me, and he immediately reacted. He said, ‘How do you know it’s bad? It’s very sad, but not necessarily bad,’ ” Daniel recalls. “That was an amazing thought.”
Ivonne surrounded herself with strong women. In the hospital she asked women to pray, and during shivah and for months after, she invited family and friends to sit with her.
Sometimes they sang, prayed or studied Torah. But for Ivonne, the main thing was their presence.
“It was very scary to me to be alone with my loss. I needed people around me, and women especially inspired me. I needed to see them close to me,” she said.
The days right after shivah were the hardest.
“There was a woman who had lost her son. And I called her a few days after shivah, and I said, ‘I can’t. I can’t.’ And she came right over, and I remember her standing by my bed, and just for me to see her — she had lost a son in a very similar way, at a very similar age, and I could identify with her. And she was standing and she was strong,” Ivonne said.
She remembers wondering whether she could walk Talia into day camp. But she did. Later, they sent Ilan to Camp Ramah, as planned, and they went to Israel as a family.
“Much advice was given to us in shivah, and one was to take care of your marriage,” Ivonne said. “And I decided that was my No. 1 priority.”
In counseling, they learned how to respect one another’s different ways of grieving. They learned to express themselves and to listen.
“I remember thinking, I lost Ariela, I cannot lose anyone else in my life,” Ivonne said.
They attended a retreat for bereaved parents through Chai Lifeline, an organization that supports families with seriously ill children. They are still friends with some of the parents they met there.
“We had all of this inside of us and we had to let it out by all means available,” Ivonne said.
After checking with rabbis, Daniel decided to say the Kaddish mourners’ prayer for a full year, not the customary one month. Ivonne remembers absorbing the power of the congregation the first time she said Yizkor, on Yom Kippur.
“God gave us a lot of strength and faith, and that was and continues to be one of the ways in which we have been able to cope,” Daniel said. “We believe in the afterlife and in the soul, and that is part of what gives us faith.”
A few months after the accident, the Beverly Hills Moms Club, a group Ivonne and Ariela had belonged to, sponsored a backyard benefit concert in Ariela’s memory.
For what would have been Ariela’s second birthday, in November 2007, the Goldbergs sponsored a birthday party at a low-income school, bringing in cake, a magic show and presents.
On the first anniversary of her passing, her yahrzeit, the Goldbergs hosted a Saturday afternoon get-together at B’nai David, which they called Shirat Ariela (Ariela’s Song), to thank the Beth Am and B’nai David communities and leaders.
Because it was Shabbat, there were no instruments, and the Goldbergs had designated some friends to lead soulful singing for the hundreds of guests.
“We had no idea what was going to happen. The singing was so beautiful, and suddenly the kids began to move and to crawl and to dance, and then we were all dancing and it was beautiful. It was a simcha, and we were celebrating life, and that we were together,” Ivonne said.
The Ariela Foundation was established about a year after Ariela died. Many people donated money after the accident and asked the Goldbergs to designate a charity.
They opened a donor-advised fund at the Jewish Community Foundation with the $10,000 that had come in. They made some initial distributions, mostly for children in hospitals, but still wanted a long-term project. At the same time, Daniel’s brother, Eric, who has lived in Israel for more than 20 years and works in international marketing and business development, had been thinking about doing something to give back. He established the foundation in Ariela’s memory and is its volunteer director. About a year later, Daniel and Ivonne established Ariela US.
The visit this summer from Nofar Mekonen and Aviva Dese, 24, an aspiring young singer also being helped by the Ariela Foundation, marked the first time Daniel and Ivonne made such a public appeal for the foundation, and to them it felt right to bring in the community that had so supported them.
There was also one piece of advice that Ivonne resisted. People told her that true healing would happen if she had another baby.
“I didn’t want more kids. She was a miracle, she was perfect,” Ivonne said. “It was so hard for me to hear the idea that one baby could replace another baby. It made me very angry.”
But, slowly, Daniel warmed to the idea and over time Ivonne began to hear him.
“I remember thinking, I trust you, and I need to trust you because I want to survive, and I want to live again,” Ivonne said.
Michael was born on March 3, 2009.
Ivonne said that her commitment to Talia and Ilan was what initially made her want to live again, and Mikey’s birth brought in new energy.
“Every single minute with Michael has been like a remedy for each one of us. One hundred percent. I think that is what is behind everyone saying, ‘Have another baby’ — it brings the force of life back into your life,” Ivonne said.
The family tells Mikey all about the sister he never knew. He associates bubbles with Ariela, because the family has a stash of bubble bottles from memorial events.
The Goldbergs have also kept Ariela as a living presence in their family through photos and stories.
“She continues to be our daughter even though she is no longer here physically, and we love her as much as we love each one of our children,” Daniel said.
On Ariela’s yahrzeit this year, Ilan chanted a portion of Torah at Camp Ramah in her honor, and his friends stood up with him when he said Kaddish.
Talia keeps a big picture of her sister right on her desk. Ivonne said just looking at Talia brings Ariela back to her.
It’s on Friday nights that Ariela is most present with the family.
Ariela used to love the rituals before the Shabbat meal, in particular the hand washing, and always chimed in with “amen.” So, they look at a picture of her on the wall by the sink and remember her amens. And every Friday night, when Daniel puts his hands on each of his children’s heads and recites the priestly blessing, he blesses Ariela as well.
For Ivonne, just looking at her family makes her feel lucky to be alive, she said, and grateful to have so much joy and so many options ahead.
“Life is the strongest thing. There is nothing stronger than that,” Ivonne said. “The life in my children’s eyes is stronger than the death of my daughter.
“Life is stronger than death.”