Dear Rabbi Horowitz:
We are all aware of the terrible Churban that took place in Merkaz HaRav in Yerushalayim where 8 precious Neshomos were taken. We also have read that these boys were of the special few who chose to take a few minutes to learn while others were preparing for the Rosh Chodesh Seudah. Obviously, they were really special.
How can I explain and respond to my children when they ask why Hashem has punished these young innocent bachurim who were the "cream of the crop" and were doing the right thing? What is going on in Eretz Yisroel, in Sderot and Ashkelon etc. is very frightening to young kids, especially when young children are suffering so much.
How can we explain the right Hashkafah to children who are questioning Hashem's ways?
Rabbi Horowitz Responds
Over the past few decades, mental health professionals have made enormous progress in understanding the grieving process. This knowledge, when properly accessed, can help individuals and families deal with the searing pain of losing a loved one.
I feel that the treatment of this question of how to explain loss and tragedy to our children would be incomplete without input from a clinician with training and experience in grief counseling. With that in mind, I invited my dear chaver, Moshe Borowski, LMSW, ACSW, who serves as the Director of SSTART (School & Synagogue Trauma and Resilience Training, to share his thoughts with our readers. Reb Moshe and I co-authored this column, speaking in his ‘first person.’
Over the years, Reb Moshe has graciously made himself available on countless occasions when I needed professional assistance in guiding families through traumatic times in their lives. Please find more information on Reb Moshe at the footer of this column, and linked are two PDF’s that he prepared to assist families and communities with grief counseling.
When addressing such emotion-laden hashkafic issues, I would not use the word “punish,” which would imply that these bochrim did something wrong to deserve what happened. Also, it may be helpful to reframe the need to find the answer(s) to the questions to focusing on devising “an approach” to the issues at hand. If Hashem felt that even Moshe, who had reached the highest level of knowledge attainable, could not fully understand the answers, (see Rabbi Horowitz’s first two columns in this series), how could we ever hope to do so, let alone provide them to children?
Life and Death
Younger elementary school children may need a general overview of death. I have found it quite helpful to first clarify what life itself means. Life, at its most basic level, is the joining of a body and a neshama, which is a miraculous union. This approach heightens a child’s appreciation for Hashem’s greatness, which can help brace him/her for the next step of explaining death.
I have found that an age-appropriate mashal to explain the basics of the life/death dichotomy is the mixing of vinegar and oil when making salad dressing. By nature, the two liquids separate. When you mix them together, they combine, but only temporarily. Life exists for as long as the liquids remain mixed together. Death occurs when the liquids revert back to their natural state, regardless of the time (old or young) or causes (prolonged illness or sudden trauma) for the separation.
Providing Comfort and Security
Often, the questions children ask about death are not as philosophical/theological as they sound, but rather they are personal in nature. Death/tragedy shatters the pleasant “bubble” which we often have the luxury of living in, where death is sanitized and distant. When you hear a child ask “Why is this happening?” keep in mind that he/she may also be asking is, “Will this soon be happening to me or my friends/loved ones?”
The corollary of this question is, “If it happens to those I love, who will take care of me? Will I be all right?” Safety and security are the main issues at hand. Children need reassurance that they, and those around them, will be cared for and protected.
- Be prepared to provide verbal, emotional and physical comfort (calm, soothing voice; child in close proximity or with your arm around his/her shoulder).
- Explain details of how they are currently safe on a day-to-day level and in the case of emergency.
- Balance keeping the regular structure that they are used to, along with the necessary flexibility in light of what has happened.
- Allow younger children extra time to go to bed at night, and perhaps the permission to even sleep in your room if they request (be careful to explain to them that it is “o.k. for tonight” – you don’t want them to get used to sleeping with you and thereby create new issues to deal with).
• Do not be surprised if the response includes silence, shrugs or mumbles. Children may test your sincerity, or use the opportunity to take out their frustrations and anger (at your prior relationship and/or at the current tragedy).
• You can try to model for your child by sharing how you have been reacting to what has happened. For example, you can confide that it has left you scared or upset, but be careful to not leave the (mis)impression that you are unable to cope with your feelings. Children can become even more bothered if they perceive that you are incapacitated by the incident.
Teenagers may acutely feel the “bubble burst.” Their feelings of indestructibility and immortality may be shaken to the core. The fact that this particular tragedy involved teens, especially ones who were “doing the right thing,” makes the event even more scary and perplexing. Some level of sophistication will be needed when responding to their questions. Even if teens fight you on the answers, keep in mind that they may be speaking out of anxiety and fear.
Here are some suggestions:
- Make sure they know that they can speak with friends and concerned adults if they choose (teachers, rebbeim, guidance counselors, relatives, parents).
- Let them know you are there for them. Gently encourage them to get together with friends to mourn as they see fit
- Do not try to force them to talk – this contributes to their sense of powerlessness. They may become withdrawn and/or angry in response.
- Validate their questions, give them “permission” to ask and vent as needed.
- If you think it might help, provide “religious permission” by quoting the gemara in Brachos that Rabbi Horowitz discussed in a previous column.
- Be vigilant for signs of social withdrawal, depression, risk-taking, problems with sleeping or eating.
Getting Children in Touch With Their Loss
Over the years, in my professional capacity, I have addressed hundreds of teens (one-to-one, in groups and in classrooms) in the immediate aftermath of tragedies. At some point in the discussion, I may ask them whether they would be “satisfied” if a Heavenly voice revealed the reason why this particular person had to die. “Of course not,” they usually respond in frustration and often anger.
“Why not?” I counter. “If you get the answer to a complex math or chemistry problem, wouldn’t you be pleased?” Their response usually is, “Who cares about the answer?! We want the niftar back!!”
Often, the consummate intellectual question of “Why did this happen?!” actually serves to conceal the ultimate emotional desire: “I don’t want bad things to happen! I want people who are dead to be alive again!”
Some Practical Tips
- If you don’t know the answer to a difficult hashkafic question, it’s best to answer just that. The hashpa’ah and nechama of being “modeh al ha’emes,” combined with “dvarim ha’yotzim min ha’lev nichnasim el ha’lev,” are incredibly powerful and meaningful. The heartfelt sincerity and pain with which you answer “I don’t know” may end up having a greater impact on your child than any actual answer you could ever provide. Trying to “fudge” an answer risks setting off the finely-tuned “truth-antennas” that Hashem has imbued within children.
- One of the more comforting approaches is to stress that there is a “big picture” that life and history are part of, a huge canvas or tapestry that is constantly being created and revealed, and of which we are only able to glimpse the very small (and sometimes confusing) segment that currently appears in front of us.
- Empathize with the feelings embedded within their questions, share your own feelings, “be there” for your children and verbalize that you are always there for them, and make sure to follow through if they do seek your counsel or support.
- Remember that there are no “recipes” when it comes to dealing with tragedy. There are no necessarily “right” or “wrong” emotional reactions.
- Some children will actively avoid the issues at hand, particularly if this is an approach that has worked for them in the past. Allow them to respond “their way” while continuing to monitor how they are coping. Do not push children to think/feel/react in any particular way.
- For those who tend to respond more directly to difficult situations, Dovid HaMelech (Tehillim 22:2) provides a tremendous model as he beseeches, “My
G-d, my G-d, why have you abandoned me?” R. Samson Raphael Hirsch innovatively suggests that “Lamah? – Why?” should be read as “L’Mah? – Toward what?” Seeking personal meaning and searching for the practical aspects of “What should I do now in response?” can help people cope, and possibly even grow, in the wake of tragedy. In that vein, projects (chessed campaigns, tseddakah drives, additional Torah learning and/or mitzvos) focus people on doing something about what has happened. This helps children and adults to avoid ruminating and getting depressed, and provides empowerment and focus. On deeper emotional and spiritual levels, these types of projects help create and maintain a connection to the niftarim and to Klal Yisroel.
Please feel free to peruse SSTART’s materials on helping children in the wake of trauma and loss for further insights and tips. To paraphrase the Chofetz Chaim (Parshas VaYigash): may the day come, speedily and in our times, in which two words, Ani Hashem, will ring forth throughout the world and provide instantaneous clarity and consolation to alleviate millennia of confusion, pain and anguish.
© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz and Moshe Borowski, all rights reserved
Moshe Borowski, LMSW, ACSW has been counseling children and teens in trauma related matters for more than two decades, with the last twelve years devoted specifically to issues of loss and bereavement. He has worked with schools and families across the country in response to trauma, and trains parents, teachers, rabbis and mental health professionals in these arenas.
Moshe has helped found many major programs helping the Jewish community cope with trauma and/or loss, including the Syrian Resettlement Program for the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA), MJHS's Metropolitan Jewish Hospice, and Chai Lifeline's Project CHAI (Chizuk, Healing and Intervention). He founded SSTART close to two years ago to help children and families, and yeshivas, shuls and communities, heighten their resilience and coping skills, both before and after life's challenges.
He is also in private practice in the New York metropolitan area, and can be reached at HealTheHurt@gmail.com or (646) 673-5909. Please (CLICK HERE for links to SSTART materials that provide a step-by-step approach to helping children, and adults, cope with tragedy and loss.
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