What Happens to Someone Who Loses Her Whole Family?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
July 30 2013 5:30 AM

Post-Tragedy

I once knew a girl who lost her whole family before she finished high school. I decided to see what happened to her.

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Sara had just graduated from eighth grade when they moved. Helen knew her prognosis was grim, but she and Sara had a single talk around the time of the move about what would happen if Helen died and where Sara would go. In New York Helen continued with her usual bravado, and even those closest to her didn’t know how grave her condition was. So there in an apartment in New York, where neither wanted to be, were two tough females, one middle-aged and dying, the other a teenager uprooted from everything she had known. They were miserable. Sara says, “There is no exaggerating my mother’s temper or her ability to see things as black and white.”

During a fight two months after the move, Helen screamed to Sara that she should send her to boarding school. Sara replied that was a great idea, got a guidebook, and told her mother she wanted to go to one she had found in Missouri, a location that put her close enough to her beloved horses, boarded in Kentucky. Her act of defiance became a salvation. Thomas Jefferson School in St. Louis was a haven for her. She was leaving her mother behind, but her departure spared her the grueling task of watching Helen decline, day by day, for the next two years.

Jerrold Kushnick and his son Samuel.
Jerrold Kushnick and Samuel

Courtesy of Sara Gorfinkel

Sara observes that her father died when she was at an age that he could do no wrong. He was the coach of every team she was on. He was her connection to Judaism—Helen had been raised Catholic and converted for her marriage—and Sara remembers him taking her to synagogue and singing the prayers: “He had a beautiful voice.” By the time Helen was dying, Sara was at an age when a mother could do no right. “I was mad at her for being sick and usual mother-daughter things,” she says.

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Jane Rosenthal was one of Helen’s few friends to stick by her. With Helen back in New York, Rosenthal, a co-founder with Robert De Niro of what’s now Tribeca Enterprises and its CEO, was able to visit her and was one of the handful of people with whom Helen discussed the inevitable. It was typical Helen, no self-pity, no fear. Rosenthal slips into Helen’s voice—lower, brasher, faster—as she quotes her: “I’ve taught Sara everything she needs to know now. So if she needs anything, she can call you. But I’ve taught her everything.” Rosenthal says of Helen’s assertion: “She had to feel she had completed her job. That it was OK to go.”

The summer before Sara’s junior year of high school, she went on a school trip across Europe. It was the days before instant and constant communication, so she sent a postcard to her mother saying she had arrived in London, not knowing that by then Helen was slipping in and out of consciousness. When Sara finally got to New York, she went to her mother’s hospital room with a pack of cigarettes, and the two had a smoke. “The nurse came in to chastise us. I was going to apologize, but my mom said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ” Sara says, smiling at the subversive memory.

By August things were so bad that there was nothing the hospital could do, and Helen was moved back to the apartment. Sara wanted to get back to her school, to her life. She says of her younger self, “I had the attitude, ‘This is inconvenient for me.’ ” Then 10 days after Helen’s 51st birthday, she was gone. Sara called Rosenthal, who took her shopping for a dress for her mother’s funeral. Helen’s body was flown back to Los Angeles, and Sara and her mother’s cousin, Joan Licursi, who had always been a kind of Mary Poppins figure for Sara, buried Helen next to Sam and Jerry. Sara spoke at her mother’s funeral. Entertainment Weekly quotes her saying, “You never quit, Mom. Perhaps they’ll say you finally gave up. But I know, Mom, giving up is not what Kushnicks do.”

Now she was 16 and on her own. “In some ways I’m lucky it’s a blur,” she says. She remembers arriving back to school and talking to her guidance counselor, Boaz Roth. He said to me, “Miss Kushnick, we will get you through.” She says her school, horseback riding, and Roth gave her stability and focus. But there was the matter of who was going to continue to raise her.

Helen had designated an old friend of Jerry’s to be Sara’s guardian. The idea was that this would be a connection to Sara’s father and to Judaism. But Sara barely knew the man and rebelled at the idea of being taken in by a stranger. She called Licursi, always known as “Cousin Joan,” and asked if she would be her guardian. “By 1996 there was no other competition for me,” Sara says. Joan, two years older than Helen, had been briefly married, long divorced, and had no children. She had been the family’s other successful woman, her career in marketing taking her to senior vice president at Burson-Marsteller. Licursi, who resembles Helen and has her same boisterous laugh, had hoped she would be the one to care for Sara, and the legal handoff was quickly done.

“So there was Cousin Joan and the Cousin Joan network,” says Sara. “I was so grateful for what she gave me. Her friends say that I gave her meaning and purpose. And now the girls are here for her.”

Sara puts her finger on a passage in the Working Woman story where I asked Helen how she kept from crumbling. “Did I have an alternative?” Helen had said to me. Sara nodded her head. “There isn’t one,” she says. “That’s how she always approached our life together and how I would continue without her. Persevering is of primary importance.”

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Sara was 23, a magna cum laude graduate of Gettysburg College, now studying for a master’s degree at Georgetown. She had just been chosen for a summer fellowship in New York with the American Jewish Committee. All the fellows were invited to Washington, D.C., for a conference held at the Capitol Hilton. As she entered the lobby laden with bags (“I’m a chronic overpacker”), a security agent in a suit, dark glasses, and earpiece came over to her and asked if she was with the man in front of her. A little freaked out, she said no. The agent explained he thought they were together and the man was making her carry all the bags, which infuriated him.

The agent was Ron Gorfinkel, and as he says, “I’ve been carrying Sara’s bags ever since.”

Gorfinkel was then 27 years old, an Israeli who had just finished a stint providing security at the Israeli Embassy. (He now co-owns Royal Airport Concierge Service, which handles airport transfers for high-end travelers.) He got Sara’s phone number, and on one of their early dates, a Rolls-Royce drove by, and he remarked upon it. Sara said that when she was little her father drove a Rolls, so Gorfinkel asked what her father was doing now. And so it went, as he asked next about her mother, about whether she had any siblings. He said to me of that conversation: “Excuse my English, but I’m thinking, ‘Is she fucking with me?’ Because who had heard a story like this?”

During her courtship with Gorfinkel he took her to Israel for the first time to show her off to his family, to help her understand where he came from. While there, the two went on a tour of the Chaim Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv. In 1985 Sara’s parents had endowed the Samuel Jared Kushnick Pediatric Immunology Research Center there. Looking into the laboratory named for her brother, full of busy people trying to cure childhood illnesses, was a profound moment for her. She felt that for all her parents’ worldly success, their getting to the top in show business, their real legacy was here. “It all clicked. I need to work in philanthropy,” she says. “You see a need, and you fix things.”

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