Dear Rabbi Horowitz:
Our family is recovering from the terrible, unexpected loss of a loved one who passed away far too young.
My husband and I have differing views on seeking professional help to help our children cope with the tragedy. (Thankfully, at least on the surface, they all seem to be doing well.) I am strongly in favor of seeking this help, while my husband, who is an amazing father and has been our bedrock throughout this ordeal, thinks that we should leave well enough alone and not subject our children to the agony of pouring their hearts out to a stranger.
We are regular readers of your columns and recently re-read your “Open Letter to Teens Who Lost a Parent,” where you very clearly encourage them to seek help if they are having difficulty dealing with their grief. But what if they don’t seem to be exhibiting any such signs?
We would greatly appreciate your thoughts on this matter.
Al regel achas (literally “on one foot”), I would most certainly encourage you – in the strongest terms – to seek out the assistance of a trained, mental health professional to help your children (and their parents) cope with your grief. However, as this is a topic where input from a mental health professional is crucial, I reached out to Moshe Borowski, LMSW, ACSW, who graciously accepted my invitation to share his thoughts with our readers on the subject of grief counseling and the overall topic of helping children cope with trauma. Below, please find his slightly edited response to your letter.
For background, Moshe has spent more than two decades counseling members of our community who have suffered losses. Over the past 10 years, he has always made himself available to me, around the clock, whenever I’ve called him on behalf of individuals suffering through traumatic events who have reached out to me for guidance. I am profoundly grateful for this. On behalf of our readers, I would like to express my gratitude to Moshe for taking the time from his busy schedule to respond to these questions. Here are his comments:
At the risk of sounding self-serving, I strongly concur with Rabbi Horowitz’s advice for you to seek professional help in aiding your family members through this trying time in your lives. It is common for children and adults to “look OK” on the outside, but doing very poorly on the inside.
As a trauma therapist, I am often called upon to lend a helping ear after accidents or deaths. While situations should always be dealt with on an individualized basis, here are some general tips for helping children cope with trauma:
Explain that their feelings and reactions are normal and acceptable. Children often fear that they are weird or “going crazy” due to what they are experiencing. This additional level of distress can complicate attending to their inherent reactions to the incident.
Being reassured that their experiences are shared by many (while being careful not to minimize the uniqueness of what they are going through) is a tremendous relief. Keep in mind the incisive adage of the psychiatrist/author Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who wrote the seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning: “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal.” [Emphasis added]
Stress the importance of family unity. Explain that the entire family is going through this together. Children may be concerned that they are alone in their thoughts and feelings. Knowing that you are there with them – and for them – is exceptionally comforting. “Imo Anochi b’tzarah – I (God) am with a person in his troubles,” the Psalmist tells us. Hashem’s empathic caring, so to speak, is an essential trait for us to emulate.
Be an “Active Listener” – even if they have already described the incident and their responses to it. Make sure to maintain your composure and, if needed, have someone available that you can turn to for support. If you are unable to accomplish this, explain that the situation is difficult for you as well, and have your spouse or another familiar adult (family member, friend, neighbor, teacher, rabbi) “be there” for the children. Keep in mind that on some level, your child may be asking, “Will this happen to me and my family? Who would take care of me? Will I really be okay?”
Initiate hands-on projects. When trauma occurs, children feel as if their world has turned upside down. There is no longer any feeling of control, power or safety. This can be terrifying for anyone, especially children. It’s the role of adults to help restore some sense of control, at least over the “inner world” which we all carry around. Be sure to allow them input in choosing their projects. They can write stories and poems, or opt to paint and draw. They can focus on the event or express themselves in general terms. Encourage children to give tzedakah, preferably to a charity or fund where they can directly sense that they are helping people directly.
Stick to routine and be flexible. Which one is it? Actually a little of both. Routine can provide a child with structure and comfort. But be prepared for the distinct possibility that compromise and flexibility may also be needed. Schedule some extra time for them to fall asleep, read or play. If you feel that a young child needs to sleep with you for the night, or that you need to go into his or her room to facilitate sleeping, use expressions like, “Since it has been such a tough day, you can join us for tonight.” You want to avoid unwittingly fostering a situation where your child now “needs” to constantly sleep in your room.
Take care of yourself. Make sure that you have someone to vent to (spouse, sibling, neighbor, friend, rabbi/rebbetzin, therapist). Review some of the tips for children and find those that are also applicable to you. Be sure to exercise and find time for the things that give you emotional energy. Always keep in mind that the healthier you are – in body and spirit – the better positioned you will be to help your children when they need it most.
Moshe Borowski, LMSW, ACSW, is the founder and director of SSTART (School & Synagogue Trauma and Resilience Training), a non-profit organization helping children and families, schools and communities cope with various types of trauma or loss. He is also in private practice in Brooklyn and the Five Towns. He has been involved in counseling, chinuch and kiruv for over 25 years. SSTART can be reached at HealTheHurt@gmail.com or 646-673-5909.