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On Loss And Healing

By: Hindie M. Klein  

These are dramatic and turbulent times. A feeling of dread and disquiet blankets the world, and each individual experiences this in a singular way.

The Jewish community has experienced many tragedies in the past yearthe explosion at Sbarros in Jerusalem, the tragic helicopter crash in Nevada, and the devastating and most traumatic destruction of the World Trade Centers. When one thinks back on the year’s events, there are no words to describe the anguish, the horror, the sorrow. This is trauma and loss that defies comprehension. As a people, our history is fraught with tragedy and mourning. It is amazing that we have the will to go on, but we do. It is inherent in our characteralogical makeup, and it is passed from generation to generation. Our perseverance has many voices: in our learning, in our music, in our need and desire to help others.

I have seen many expressions of trauma resulting from a major loss. Depression, a common symptom of trauma, takes many forms. It can result in immobility or hyperactivity. It can cause fits of tearfulness, stoic silence or bouts of anger. It may occur immediately or it may not occur for weeks or months. Only one thing is certain: trauma following a major loss is bound to emerge, one way or another. And if there has been previous traumas, what emerges may not only be about the current situation, but may also cause the reliving of tragic memories from traumas past. For example, several days after the World Trade Center tragedy, Phyllis Diamond, CSW, Arkady Utkin, CSW, and Tsilya Lekumavich, staff of Tikvah at Ohel’s Mobile Mental Health Team, conducted a support group for the tenants of a senior citizens residence in Boro Park. The main issues expressed by the 80 seniors were their fears for safety, grief, sense of tremendous loss and anger. Half the group was from the former Soviet Union, and they felt their faith in coming to America for a better and safer life was now being shaken. They all expressed a sense of wanting to "do something"; either by giving blood or money. One woman, a Holocaust survivor, asked, "Where was the world when I was in Auschwitz? Where is the world now?" This comment reflected the reliving of the painful memories of the past. Another woman talked about the current "war" that was being declared by this act of terror, and reminisced about World War II. She recalled the sacrifices required and wondered if that would be necessary again. But perhaps most important, was the group’s feeling that the opportunity to share their experiences allowed them to voice both past memories and present concerns.

Trauma is Individual
An important point to remember when dealing with trauma, either in understanding one’s own experience, or when helping others, is that people react in different ways and work at a different pace. It is important to allow oneself and others the freedom to experience in their own individualized way. Research has shown that both adults and children who experience catastrophic events show a wide range of reactions. Some suffer only briefly, aided by emotional support and the passage of time. Others are more deeply affected and may experience long-term problems.

After the initial shock and denial of a tragic event subsides, reactions may vary from person to person. However, there are "normal" responses to a traumatic event.

Feelings may become intense and at times unpredictable. You may become more irritable than usual, and mood may change back and forth dramatically. 

You might have repeated and vivid memories of the event. These flashbacks may occur for no apparent reason and may lead to physical reactions such as rapid heartbeat or sweating. You may find it difficult to concentrate and make decisions. Sleeping and eating patterns may be disrupted. 

Recurring emotional reactions are common. Anniversaries of the event, such as one month or one year, can trigger upsetting memories. So can sounds, like sirens or the whir of a helicopter. These "triggers" may be accompanied by fears that the stressful event will reoccur. 

Interpersonal relationships may become strained. Greater conflict may arise within families or at work. Or you may become withdrawn and isolated and avoid your usual activities. 

Physical symptoms may accompany extreme stress. Headaches, nausea and chest pain may result and may require medical attention. Pre-existing medical conditions may be exacerbated. 

And then of course, there are the children. There may be confusion and many questions. There may be nightmares or fears of sleeping alone. There may be regressions such as thumb sucking or bed-wetting. There may be temper tantrums or social isolation, or poor academic performance.

There are many ways to heal, to restore emotional well being to both you and your family. And it is crucial that you take care of yourself first, so that you will be emotionally accessible to your family. Give yourself time to heal. Understand that this is a difficult time, and that there may be changes in your emotional state. Ask for support from people who can empathize, yet keep in mind they too may have experienced the trauma. Communicate to others in ways you find comfortable; talking to others, seeking professional help, or keeping a diary. Engage in healthy behaviors that are helpful during times of stress such as exercise, or a favorite hobby. Spend more time with your younger children and allow them to be a bit more clingy than usual. Physical affection is very comforting to children who have experienced trauma. Provide play experiences that help relieve tension, especially non-verbal activities such as drawing or play-doe. Encourage your older children to talk to you and answer their questions as honestly as possible and in a way that they can understand and find meaningful.

There is one phrase that has always helped me, especially during trying times. "Gam Ze Ya’avor"—"this too shall pass". Perhaps this can be helpful in putting things in perspective and in looking towards a future of greater peace of mind.

A final footnote. Many people have asked me about the Tikvah Clinic, and our "transition". Tikvah is now Tikvah at Ohel. Our location and our commitment to providing quality mental health services to the Jewish community have not changed. We are now under the auspices of Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, and we are thankful to be part of the Ohel community and for the supportive environment they provide. Our mission remains steadfast and clear helping others with empathy, dignity and respect.  

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