May 19, 2024
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May 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Combating Anxiety and Depression: Dealing With Tragedy, Pain and Suffering (Part II)

In the first article, we discussed how Torah wisdom and positive psychology advance the idea that in combating anxiety and depression, positive actions induce positive emotions (JL: 6/14, p. 44). Yet, this is not always possible. This past year, beginning with the brutal kidnapping and death of “Our Boys,” it seems as if tragedies have struck at the core of our Jewish community, from all directions—within our families, communities, in Eretz Yisroel and the world at large. As a result, it may seem difficult to consider combating the cloud of sadness that envelops us. Yet, in this article, inspired by my patients, the weekly parsha class of Rabbi Efrem Goldberg and other Torah scholars who guide me, we will learn that perhaps, at times, holding on to one’s sorrow, rather than letting go prematurely, may be more a more realistic short term response in the wake of trauma, tragic loss or serious illness.

The wise words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and current psychological theory teach us that rationalizing pain and suffering can, in fact, compromise our feelings of empathy for those who suffer. For example, advising the ill, who courageously endure painful treatment, of the beneficial outcome does nothing to ease the pain. Similarly, comforting the bereaved with such words as: “At least he is out of his pain,” or: “He is in a better place,” can be experienced as insensitive and cruel. In all cases, these responses may even add to the emotional overload of the victims, when they feel they have no right to complain, or they must hold their feelings in abeyance for the sake of others. In the wake of trauma, I find that the most effective response can be to allow the victims to process the pain in their own way and according to their own timetable. Moreover, during this initial period, one’s empathy can best be communicated by being there unconditionally and as long as is needed. During this time period, it is also important to fine tune one’s “emotional antenna” in order to accurately discern what the victims need; this occurs through really listening, rather than offering advice based on one’s own experience or imagining what one might do when faced with similar circumstances.

Once again, Torah wisdom and psychology converge in offering an additional response that can be very effective in responding to pain, suffering and loss, and that is “silence.” While remaining silent may feel counter-intuitive, given the “rescue fantasies” so many possess, one must remember that at times while the drive to make things better is intuitive, short of making the illness, trauma or loss go away, things will not be better during this emotionally devastating time. What can we realistically do? In Parshat Shemini, we learned the “power” of “silence”; and this year it was very salient for our community. Ironically, we read of the tragic loss Aharon suffered in the death of his sons in the wake of tragic loss our dear friends suffered through the untimely petirah of their beloved son. We were all stunned as we stood by, feeling helpless and not knowing what we could do to help. I remember feeling humbled by the understanding that my professional expertise was more or less useless when tragedy hit so close to home. Yet, in my Torah study I received the guidance I was looking for.

We learn that Moshe attempts to comfort Aharon by asking him not to be “too distraught” because Hashem “sanctifies” those who are closest to Him. Aharon’s response to Moshe’s attempt at “chizzuk” is recorded in the Torah with the words: “Vayidom Aharon”—“And Aharon was silent.” The Meforshim weigh in on explaining Aharon’s response, and debate the question of whether his silence reflected an expression of “anger,” “defiance,” “grief” or “complete unquestioning faith.” While it is difficult to accurately assess the feelings of others, I am certain that even with his strong faith, Aharon was not impervious to intense feelings of grief; therefore, we need to look for the lesson Aharon’s silence was intended to teach. I am not discounting the possibility that Moshe’s attempt at comfort was in fact successful, and that Aharon’s silence affirmed his strong faith in and acceptance of God’s plan. Still, I would also like to suggest yet another possibility. Perhaps, while well intended, Moshe’s advice was based on how he experienced the tragedy. Yet, the two brothers reflect very different character types, with Aharon the more sensitive of the two. Perhaps, Aharon expected more empathy, and was therefore saddened or even angered by Moshe’s highly spiritual, but perhaps insensitive, response in the immediate wake of the tragedy. Viewed from this perspective, I believe Aharon’s silence allowed him to process his own pain, rather than react impulsively in misreading Moshe’s well-intended spiritual advice. Perhaps in taking the time to process his loss and Moshe’s response, Aharon avoided the risk of lashing out at Moshe and God; and even more likely, perhaps, there were truly no words that could adequately express the terrible grief he felt.

Indeed, Aharon’s response of silence is grist for the mill. It validates the notion that at times, “silence is golden.” Silence is the gift that allows one to combat and reduce the anxiety associated with pain, suffering and loss, by giving oneself and others permission to be fully present, to hold on to and process the pain; and to do so in one’s unique way and through one’s own timetable. Silence is the gift that allows one to be there for others, and communicate one’s support through body language, hugs or tears, rather than filling a perceived void, with unnecessary or even hurtful words. Silence is the gift that helps avoid the risk of saying things one later regrets. Silence is the gift that teaches that there is no one-size-fits-all recipe when suffering or tragedy strikes. Silence is the gift that demonstrates that one can help by fine tuning one’s emotional antenna and discerning that which is really needed by the victims. Silence is the gift that teaches one to listen, rather than relying on one’s past response in similar situations, or imagining what one might do in comparable circumstances. And most importantly, silence is the gift that teaches us that while we are wired to speak from the heart and express our words with authority and even eloquence, in dealing with the anxiety, depression and emotional pain of others, sometimes no words are empathic enough, strong enough or expansive enough to combat these feelings, other than absolute silence.

Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst, with special training in Imago Relational Therapy. She facilitates a Chevrusah in Cyberspace edited by Debbie Friedman. Dr. Nussbaum can be reached at [email protected].

By Dr. Renee Nussbaum

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