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A Validating Experience (Part I)


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Her tone of voice was no different than usual: demure; calm; in-control. And then she shared with me a couple of ill-conceived statement expressed to her by some “loving” individuals: “Don’t think of her suffering as something bad.” If she suffers now then at least she won’t suffer in The Next World.” And the next one, well, that just went over the top (mind you, this communication took place a couple of months after the High Holidays): “It looks like you didn’t daven too well this past Yom Kippur.”

With that concluding sentence, her pitch changed drastically as she began to recount all that had been transpiring in her life during these past few weeks. I could sense an intense energy-surge leaping through the air, emoting frustration, resentment and anger seeking a safe haven for her pained heart searching for that something she had been unable to secure up until now.

The moment of truth had arrived and I seemed to have been in that moment. To be honest, I do not recall speaking any pearls of wisdom. I offered no answers or solutions. My words were minimal, yet honest and from the heart. With the statements I uttered, and with the tone in my voice, I validated her pain. I simply acknowledged her feelings and situation by trying to stand in her shoes. I tried to imagine what it must be like for her; to watch a parent suffer and to be limited in one’s ability to help. It was obvious; my presence was exactly that which her soul had been aching to experience – warmth, empathy and compassion – a comforting feeling that would fill her void.

By now I was unsure whether or not our phone connection had been severed. What an amazing experience: when silence overcomes passion, it can be deafening! I waited a moment or two. And then it burst forth, a familiar sound – that of weeping – a means to help her express grief, and to echo a sense of relief and gratitude.

The source of her hurt, as benign as it was, had emanated from “well-meaning” friends and family. Theirs were “honest intentions,” meant to help her get through some of her rough times. And that is why she tried to be understanding and fair: “I know they mean no malice; I understand that; but still ” [Interesting word - but - it is such a dead giveaway; you just know the other shoe is about to drop]. These final two words clued me in as to the depth of her anguish; it was a “double whammy!”

When people are grieving, certain statements (as the ones above) are simply insensitive and inappropriate, even if they carry with them truth. Whether they are spoken to a spouse, a child who is caring for a suffering parent, or a parent who is contending with a suffering child, be it physically, emotionally or mentally, the impact can be devastating. Knowing what to say, how to say it, when to say it and equally as important, are you the one suitable to be saying it, must be carefully considered. The bottom line is: there is no one-size-fits-all answer that is applicable to every individual and in all situations.

The state of grief cuts across many landscapes. Of course it is most familiar and profound when the experience of loss revolves around the death of a loved one. During that period the individual requires comfort and consolation.

In the concluding segment of Chayei Sarah, the verse states: “Vayehi acharay mos Avraham vayevorech Elokim es Yitzchok b’no – And it came to pass after the death of Avraham that G-d blessed Yitzchak his son (25:11).” Blessing Yitzchak was G-d’s way of comforting him while he was mourning the death of his father, Avraham. And just as G-d comforts the bereaved, in a similar manner, we, too, are meant to emulate His actions by comforting the bereaved.

One of the most important aspects of a shiva house is for visitors to be attuned to that which the mourner requires. If the mourner wishes to remain silent, then it is incumbent upon the visitors to respect the silence and act likewise. When the mourner speaks, such is the time for visitors to respond, and to do so with care and sensitivity.

The psychology of grief was known to the Sages. Many of the laws clearly take into consideration the emotional state of the individual and his/her needs during this distressing time. The goal at the time of shiva is for the bereaved to feel comforted. And yet, that is not always accomplished. People mean well and express thoughts they perceive will be soothing. And as it turns out, not only are their words not comforting, the bereaved may, in fact, feel further distressed. Such was the case with Rabi Yochanan Ben Zakai when he sat shiva for his son.

Note: The following is a translation by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin (see: Love Your Neighbor) of the original text inMaseches Avos D’Rabi Noson 14:6.

“At the time, Rabi Yochanan’s disciples came to console him. His disciple, Rabi Eliezer entered and said, ‘The first man, Adam, had a son who died, and he was consoled. You also should accept consolation.’ Rabi Yochanan’s response was, ‘Not only do I have my personal suffering, but now you remind me of Adam’s suffering, too.’”

“Then his disciple, Rabi Yehoshua, entered and said, ‘Eyov (Job) had sons and daughters and they all died, and he was consoled.’ To that Rabi Yochanan responded,

‘Not only do I have my personal suffering, but now you remind me of Eyov’s suffering,’”

“Another disciple, Rabi Yosi, entered and said, ‘Aharon the Kohein Gadol had two great sons (Nadav and Avihu), and they both died on the same day, and he was consoled. You also should accept consolation.’ Rabi Yochanan once again responded in a similar manner to the other responses, ‘Not only do I have my personal suffering, but now you remind me of Aharon’s suffering.’”

“The next disciple, Rabi Shimon, entered and spoke, ‘David, the king, had a son who died and he was consoled. You also should accept consolation.’ And again, Rabi Yochanan responded with similar words as he had done earlier, ‘Not only do I have my personal suffering, but now you remind me of David’s suffering.’”

“Rabi Elazer ben Arech entered and began to speak. ‘I will give an analogy to your situation. The king entrusted a precious object with one of his subjects. The subject was in a state of constant worry: ‘When will I be able to return the object undamaged and unsoiled to the king?’ ‘My teacher,’ said Rabi Arech, ‘You are in a similar situation. You had a son who was a Torah scholar and left this world without sin. Be consoled that you have returned him to the King in a perfect state.’”

“‘Elazer, my son, you have properly comforted me,’ said Rabi Yochanan.”

In part two we will explore why Rabi Yochanan accepted consolation from Rabi Arech and not from his other disciples.

Debbie Brown is a certified life coach specializing in parent coaching, and is an NLP Master Practitioner. She is available for private, confidential phone coaching sessions as well as lectures and group workshops. For further information or to express feelings regarding the Parental Perspective topic, Debbie may be contacted at lovetoughcoach@aol.com.

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In the first two parts of this four-part series, we discussed the need to validate someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one. Utilizing a Rabbinic illustration, we presented the story of Rav Yochanan ben Zakai when he sat shivah for his son. The focus was on his receiving consolation: why he received comfort from his one student, Rav Elazer ben Aruch, and not from his other four students. Now let us move to a Biblical backdrop as we continue.

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