How does one comfort an individual mourning the loss of a loved one? What does one say so that the grieving person will feel consoled?
In Part One of this series on validation, the above questions were presented. To illustrate the vital points of the mitzvah to comfort the bereaved, we referred to the story in Maseches Avos D’Rabi Noson (14:6). In this segment, we will further explore these questions using some of the details in the story.
When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai sat shiva for his son, several of his students tried comforting him. Yet, only one accomplished that goal. The first disciple referred to Adam as an illustration of one who had suffered a loss and was consoled. The student concluded, “You also should accept consolation.” Reb Yochanan responded: “Not only do I have my personal suffering, but now you remind me of Adam’s suffering, too.”
The second student presented Iyov (Job), one who had suffered the loss of his entire family in one day, and had also been consoled. The student then added the same concluding comment, as the first student. And in a similar vein, the Rebbe responded as he did earlier.
The third disciple mentioned Aaron and his loss of two sons (both in the same day), indicating that Aaron was consoled. The same concluding statements followed, both by the student and the Rebbe. And finally, the fourth student pointed to King David as one who had suffered a loss and noted that he, too, was consoled. Again, the student concluded with the same statement to his Rebbe as did the disciples before him, as was the Rebbe’s response. It would only be with the fifth student that Reb Yochanan would be consoled.
The question, therefore, begs asking: Why did Reb Yochanan not accept consolation from his four students? Was there something in their content, style of communication, language, attitude, disposition, or perhaps something else that precluded their achieving their goal? And on the other side of the pole, why was RebYochanan comforted by his disciple, Rabbi Elazer ben Aruch? How was his approach or communication different from that of the other students?
Interestingly, there seem to be several common threads present in the scenarios of the first four students. Firstly, theindividuals who had been identified as “also” having gone through their personal experiences of grief – as did Rabbi Yochanan – were four great Torah personalities. Secondly, the responses given by each of the four disciples was that of the same nature: of comparison. Thirdly, the comparisons could be perceived as containing within them a component of judgment – as if to say – “If this great person was able to take comfort during his time of grief, then you, too, should do the same.” Then again, sometimes (and for some people), utilizing comparisons potentially can offer chizuk (inspiration). Referring to a righteous person as a source of inspiration can motivate a person to feasibly achieve that which the great personality has accomplished.
However, when comparisons are used as a paradigm, it is possible that such an approach can negate an individual’s feelings. One can, therefore, wonder If the students were implying how their Rebbe “should” feel, is it possible their words might be invalidating how, in fact, their Rebbe might be feeling?
Enter Rabbi Elazer ben Arech, a student whose words took his Rebbe on a different path. He did not refer to anyone else’s loss; he made no comparisons. Instead, he used an allegory as his style of communication; and it worked (parenthetically, there are instances in both Midrashic and Talmudic stories where allegories are used as a means to convey lessons). He “reached” his Rebbe, something which was not attained by the other disciples.
Based on the responses Reb Yochanan gave, it would appear that he possessed a profound depth of empathy for others who had experienced personal loss. Additionally, being so sensitized to their anguish, it would seem that he also internalized their pain and grief on top of his own. One can only imagine: feeling a double degree of grief certainly would not be conducive for a mourner to receive comfort and consolation.
Reb Elazer had to have understood his Rebbe and that which he required most. He also had to have recognized the values which Reb Yochanan honored and held dear to him. In his case, it was helping him reflect on the true meaning of parenting. As the allegory suggested, Reb Yochanan’s role was to be the keeper, charged with maintaining the precious object lent to him, and returning it to The King undamaged, unsoiled and in a perfect state. To that end, Rabbi Elazer reviewed with his Rebbe that which his son accomplished in his lifetime. As a Torah scholar who had studied all of Torah (the oral as well as written), his son left the world without sin.
One can assume that Reb Yochanan did not require people to sit with him and empathize with him for his loss. Obviously, Reb Yochanan’s greatest consolation came from tuning in to that which he felt in his heart and soul – the fulfillment of his role as a parent.And while we are not on the level of Rabi Yochanan ben Zakai, it behooves those who offer words of consolation, to remember one of the most important aspects of the approach used by Rabi Elazer ben Arech: We are all different and everyone requires something different in order to feel comforted and consoled. Tune in to the needs of the bereaved and be sensitized to their needs before you say anything. If one’s words will not be received as consolation, are they appropriate altogether?
The subject of validation continues in Part Three as we move to a different landscape.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.