Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Adar I 5760 - February 9, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Home and Family
The Many Faces of Bereavement
by Mira Neufeld

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 way!

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 overcome.

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 same.

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.


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