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How Could This Happen?
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

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How Could This Happen?

Speaking – and Listening – to Your Children about the Recent Tragedy

Earlier this year, there was a terrible tragedy as a beloved teacher in our yeshiva, Mrs. Chanie Walfish, a”h was killed when a van jumped the curb.

During the days that followed, we sent a number of emails to the parents in our school designed to help them understand the grieving process and to help them answer the questions their children would invariably have.

These lines were prepared from the content of those email messages in the hope that you will find them helpful in speaking to your children.

May Hashem comfort the grieving family members of Leiby a”h and all of us from this terrible tragedy.


Understanding the Grieving Process

It is important that you understand the dynamics of the grieving process so that you can better assist your children.

And make no mistake about it; many children are really hurting from the tragedy of Leiby’s death.

The day following the death of our teacher, Mrs. Walfish, children were crying in school, and a number of parents reported that their kids refused supper and went to bed early that night. Teachers and rebbeim as well, noticed that some of the children were very sad and despondent.

Here are a few things you may want to consider when thinking about the grieving process:

1) Generally speaking, grieving does not get better is any predictable pattern, but rather follows a random series of ups and downs depending on a host of factors.

2) There are also distinct phases of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Once you know what to look for, you can almost watch people transition between these phases, although not necessarily in this order. Reading about the Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief – especially if you or your child were significantly impacted by this tragedy, may be helpful.

3) Perhaps the most important point to understand, as the parent of a grieving child, is that one never knows which of the countless facets of this tragedy is troubling him or her. And the only way to find out is by talking less and listening more.

Just to give you an idea of the incredible range of emotions our students experienced in the days following our teacher’s death, allow me to share with you some of the things our kids said – aside from the usual things one would expect them to say under those circumstances.

One talmid mentioned that he is very sad that he didn't get to say goodbye and thank you to her. And in what was perhaps the most disturbing thing we heard from our students was the one child who was inconsolable because he behaved very poorly the last day she taught him -- the day of the tragedy!

With that in mind, if you listen well, you may hear things like “I didn’t concentrate on my Tehillim when the entire camp was davening for Leiby.” The take-away point is that listening is far more important than talking -- as it is with so many other areas of life.

My Discussions with the Children

Here are some of the messages that I imparted to my students in a series of talks we had, in the hope that you find at least some of this helpful in speaking to your children.

1) We are in this together.

I opened my first talk by giving an analogy of them joining the Pirchei baseball league, by explaining that joining that group means that you practice together and support each other over the entire season. You also celebrate victories and get upset over losses as a group. We have many yeshiva events throughout the year where we enjoy things together, and this is a terribly sad time that we also need to share together.

2) People grieve differently.

Going back to the Pirchei analogy, they were asked to reflect on how differently their teammates respond to hitting a home run, or winning or losing a game. Some take it in stride and show little emotion while others go way over the top. Just like there are different ways to celebrate, so too, are there different ways to mourn -- and they should feel free to just be themselves, and allow their friends the space to do the same.

3) How could this happen?

There are various hashkafic (philosophical) approaches to dealing with questions that tragedies like this invariably raise.

My approach is a straightforward one and one that I find to be honest and teachable. The Gemara occasionally leaves a question unanswered and the Gemara ends with the word "Teiku," which basically says that we need to wait for Eliyahu HaNavi to resolve this. I told the kids that this is simply a Teiku and is just incomprehensible. My father's death 47 years ago is still a Teiku to me, and it will probably remain so for the rest of my days.

I told them that in their lives and mine, there will always be Teiku questions, and that's when bitachon (faith) needs to kick in. The eternal truths of the Torah give us enough confidence in Hashem’s hashgacha pratis (Divine providence) that gives us the faith to take the plunge and accept things we do not understand. Since, in the limited time we have in this world, with our limited understanding of His ways, it is impossible for us to understand 100% of events that happen; we must leave the rest to faith and accept b'ahava things that are beyond our ability to understand.

Another analogy that is effective is that bitachon is similar to taking medication that a parent hands you, even if you don't know what it is -- and even if it tastes terrible -- because your life experience gives you the trust in your parents to follow their guidance in areas you don't fully understand.

There are other powerful and effective mashalim that bring home the point, that with our short life span it is impossible to understand events that take place in the eternal time frame of Hashem (think of reading a single page in a book and trying to understand the book's message).

Many parents and educators hope their kids won't ask these questions, that might have them grasping for answers. I think that is not the best approach -- for an unasked question is an unanswered one, and you may not be there to answer your children's questions when they have them later in life. (For a fuller explanation, you may want to read two columns that were published in Mishpacha a few years back Rambam or Ra'avid and If and When. )

On a practical note, please keep an eye and ear open to see if your children are ready to talk about this tragedy with you. It is important that they do so. And since the grieving cycle is filled with ups and downs, it is not uncommon for children's emotions to flare up after being completely dormant for days. Please do not hesitate to reach out for professional help if you are concerned that your child(ren) are exhibiting symptoms that are troubling to you. (Chai Lifeline has an extraordinary grief counseling program. Their Brooklyn Tragedy Crisis Intervention Line phone number is 917-710-8399.)

Finally, while this column is child-centered, many of us adults are having a very challenging time dealing with this tragedy. If you find yourself unable to bounce back from it, please give the helpline a call yourself. When they do the safety drill on airplanes, they always instruct you to place the oxygen mask on yourself before your child – even though doing that would seem to be pretty selfish to an outside observer. The message, though, is rather clear. You cannot be in a position to help your child if you don’t properly take care of yourself first.

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