Some years ago, our extended family was struck by tragedy: a young
man was brutally murdered by terrorists, leaving behind a young widow
and little children. Although they were `only' relatives by marriage,
we tried to do what we could. In the process, I consulted a friend
who had extensive experience in all sorts of community endeavors.
As it turned out, she, too, had a relative who, only a short time
before, had been widowed by terrorism.
My friend's relative and her children were, at first, so overwhelmed
by the blow that they felt they had been plunged into a deep, dark
abyss into which no sunlight could ever again penetrate. Their depression
and withdrawal from life was terrifying to behold. Nothing seemed
interesting enough to provoke any response; nothing was worth doing.
Day faded into night, night into day, endlessly.
Initially, our relatives seemed to be better off: they never completely
withdrew from everyday life. It was more as if they were surrounded
by a fog which dimmed their perception of life around them. But as
this fog threatened to close in on them, they tried to beat it off
with all sorts of flashy momentary distractions, without in any way
improving their situation. They seemed chained down by the pity of
those around them, who seemed as helpless as they in finding them
a way out of their misery. Years later, they are still floundering
around in the pathos.
The friend's relatives had had their breath knocked out of them by
this loss having been added to the awful pain of a previous tragedy.
After a long, long time, they finally began to grope their way out
of the bottomless pit -- and today they seem to have completely
rebuilt their lives.
How, then, could we better help our own relatives? Still trying to
find a way to help them find their path out of the fog, I discussed
the situation with someone new. She mentioned that I might glean something
from attending an upcoming meeting of parents of victims of terror,
where a learned rav would be speaking on the Torah viewpoint, in response
to a previous talk by a trained `professional.'
I attended, and it was a powerful, unforgettable experience. I would
like to share some of the insights I gained.
One of the most general points to remember is that for each and every
affected person, the pain, suffering and recovery are all unique to
him only. Even within the same family, the expressions of anguish
may be completely different and the means to recovery are also individual.
This sometimes seems to add to the suffering of the spouse or other
relative who cannot fathom the difference in reaction, or who feels
that the others do not understand him. All the more true for an outsider,
who must be acutely sensitive and wary of inappropriate expectations.
Crying may seem excessive, but may be the best outlet for one. The
total absence of tears may be misunderstood as shock or alienation.
Each one must be supported to find his own expression, and `given
permission' to work it out in his own style, at his pace.
If we can understand that Hashem metes out to each and every individual
his own unique `baggage in life,' his particular burden of suffering,
perhaps we can better understand that sometimes the allotted suffering
is meted out in different disguises. Thus, without an intention to
minimize the enormity of the pain of having a child murdered by terrorists,
I feel it necessary to point out that just as within such a tragedy
each of the mourners has his own unique pain, we must also realize
that there are many other forms of bereavement which can devastate
those who are struck. A parent of a severely brain-damaged child may
be forever mourning the child that could have been and contending
with his pain on a daily basis. An unmarried person may be suffering
from his loneliness, his lack of identity and place in the community.
Even within these categoreies, no two predicaments are alike. This
makes it doubly hard for the bystander to know how to respond.
It would seem that a most important principle to keep in mind is what
Chazal taught us in Pirkei Ovos. "Do not judge a person
until you are in his place." HIS place, not `the same' place,
because his place is not yours, even if your circumstances seem to
be similar. This, of course, in no way absolves the bystanders from
their obligation to help. The Torah teaches us that if we see a donkey
struggling under its burden, the passerby is obligated to help relieve
him. How much more so if we see a fellow Jew weighed down by his suffering!
In fact, the sufferers' pain may be compounded by seeing people trying
to evade them or their suffering. All too often, sufferers, such as
new widows, mothers of crippled children or cancer victims, find friends
avoiding them or refusing to hear their problems, because the friends
don't know how to deal with the issues and flee from the confrontation.
But we are not permitted to shirk such a situation when it comes our
However, utmost caution and consideration are imperative. The bystander
must pray for siyata dishmaya and activate his sensitivity
to try to be attuned to the others' needs and feelings, and always
tread carefully. A thoughtless remark can still cause searing pain
even years later. A certain widow I know remarried after her first
husband died from an extended illness. A month after her second marriage,
her new husband was hospitalized with a terminal illness. She was
worn out, emotionally and physically, from the complex situation and
sought to confide in a friend.
Decades later, she still gets all choked up when she recalls her friend's
insensitive response: "Your problem is that you're only thinking
of yourself. You should get out and do some chessed." That
is what this less-than-perceptive `friend' told this overwhelmed young
woman, struggling so devotedly with all the responsibilities of caring
for little ones at home and tending intensively a man whom she had
met only recently...
Part of helping the sufferer is being there to hear him out. This
we learn from our laws of mourning; those who come to pay condolences
must wait for the mourner to open the conversation. Listen, hear,
tune in to the nuances of his words. DON'T MINIMIZE his pain. A frequent
mistake is trying to point out to the sufferer that others have it
worse. Oftimes, he sees this as a denial of the enormity of his own
loss and pain.
On the other hand, "The suffering of others is a half-consolation."
Perhaps this is because of the reassurance that not only they have
been singled out by Hashem for suffering. Perhaps it is the message
that if others have suffered similarly and still carry on, the newer
sufferer will manage, too. This is why support groups have proven
to be so successful for myriad problems: mutual support from understanding
fellow sufferers together with sharing of advice for how to cope and
Unfortunately, despite the proven achievements of such groups, many
people hesitate to join out of a reticence to share thier innermost
feelings with strangers. But such reticence can only cause one to
lose out on opportunities to be helped by kindred spirits. Keeping
one's suffering hidden can aggravate the pain by turning it all inward.
After all, Chazal advise us to unburden ourselves from what is troubling
us by talking about it. A wonderful rebbetzin once revealed
to me a fine understanding of this teaching: if I tell my problem
to a friend who did not deserve to suffer any of the pain of this
particular problem, her merit will activate a remedy so that she will
not have to suffer from it even vicariously, through her friend.
On the other hand, by not telling, the sufferer exposes himself to
insensitivity. Just as the pampered Queen Marie Antoinette could not
fathom what it felt like to be without bread, someone unaware of the
implications of having a child with cystic fibrosis, for example,
can never know how complicated life is for that family which must
deal with constant worry compounded by special diets, daily medication
and daily therapeutic treatment.
But back to the meeting I attended. The speaker had himself lost a
child so that his words were particularly poignant. Yet, after his
speech, one of the fathers came over and said, "How could you
do this to me? For years, I was unable to sleep through the night.
Now you reopened the wound and it will haunt me all over again. Will
you, honored rabbi, be able to sleep tonight?"
He replied, "Tell me, have you ever undergone surgery? When did
you feel better? Right before or after?" He compared it to someone
who had a few gall bladder attacks with pain so bad he felt like climbing
the walls. Yet even after the pain went away, the doctor insisted
that he go in for surgery to prevent worse attacks. The day after
the surgery, the patient felt so horrible that he asked himself, "What
did I need this for? I could have managed without the operation."
For a while, the pain was worse, but as soon as he began to heal,
he realized that he had done the right thing.
Thus, said the rabbi, when we open a wound and clean it out, it will
improve the healing process. While time helps, the loss will always
be there, having changed one's life irrevocably. But there is a process.
The bereaved must have patience with themselves, but also with those
around them. They may want to talk about it with their family or,
perhaps, with someone more detached. While there are different stages,
the Torah prohibits excessive mourning.
What is excess? To an insensitive outsider, it may seem strange that
20 years after the tragedy, a parent has never regained his former
functioning. To those `who have been there,' it is all too understandable
that the loss is still acutely felt and that life will NEVER be the
Then there are the constant reminders. The parent sees former classmates
of the deceased getting married and thinks, "For us, this will
never be." Birth days come and go. "Today, he would have been
bar mitzva..." Another yahrzeit, and the shock and pain
are opened up again. What comfort can offset such a loss?
But Hashem Who gave the nisyonos, also has the antidote prepared.
With time, there can be a healing process, a way of gradually rebuilding
one's life. Klal Yisroel has been endowed with a potential
for not only surviving tragedy but growing from the experience. Far
be it from us to judge, however, how the next one should do it. When
we are in the role of bystander, our task, our obligation, is to be
there for understanding and support.
It is our fervent hope that by raising these issues, we will have
helped to increase awareness and improve sensitivity. We hope to see
response from our readers.