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When Bad Things Happen To Good People:  Grief Counseling & The Question of Why

By:  Tzivy Ross, CSW

Published in the Jewish Press, 2002

Without a doubt, one of the most difficult questions that I have faced in my experiences doing grief counseling is “Why?”

“Why did this happen to me?”

”How could G-d have let this happen?”

“He was such a good person: why did he have to die?”

The questions seem similar, yet each person’s pain is unique.  An eternal question raised anew, the intensity of its struggle in no way diminished by the frequency of its being asked :  “Why?”

Making Sense of Suffering

There was a woman who lived through the Holocaust and lost her entire family.  She courageously remarried and gave birth to three children, only to lose her beloved only daughter on September 11.  She maintained her faith throughout this terrible tragedy, persisting in the comfort of her belief that G-d would return her child to her for a proper burial.

After several months, the anticipated notification arrived, but it was not the news that she had hoped it would be.  While they indeed found indisputable proof of her daughter’s death, it was not the complete burial which she had been praying for.

What are the words of comfort that can be offered to this woman?  What are the magic words that can be said?

And what can we say to Sarah, a young woman who lost her brother in a terrorist bombing in Israel.  She described him in the following way:

“My brother was so connected to G-d, when he prayed he was the last one left standing because he always took extra care to concentrate on every word.  He went to Israel because he felt that it was the best place for him to fulfill his mission as a Jew.  Is this how his prayers were answered?”

The Sound of Silence

There are two Hebrew words which can be used to connote silence.  “Sheket” is used when an individual has what to say and holds himself back from expressing it.  “D’mama” is used when an individual is silent because he does not have any words to express.

When Aharon Hakohen lost his two sons, it says “vayidom Aharon.”  Aharon was silent because at that moment he simply did not have any words to say. 

Sometimes when a situation is so overwhelming and the pain is so intense, there simply aren’t any words to be said.  The Torah understands that in the immediate aftermath of a terrible tragedy it is difficult to be comforted or to find meaning, as the mishnah wisely says, “do not comfort the mourner while the deceased lies before him.” Sometimes there aren’t answers readily available to the painful questions that are posed.

Yet I have learned that you do not need to be the one to provide the answers; you just need to be someone who will be there throughout the question.

Permission To Ask the Question

You also don’t need to answer the question so much as you need to give it permission to be asked.

After all, Moshe Rabeinu, the greatest leader the Jewish people ever had asked the same question.  “Show me your ways,” he beseeched G-d.  And  G-d answered “No man can see My face and live.”  According to most interpretations this means that in man’s lifetime, they will not be able to see or understand G-d’s ways and G-d’s master plan.  Even Moshe Rabeinu was not privileged to receive that answer. 

Yet Moshe Rabeinu did ask the question.  The challenge in times of great stress is not abstaining from asking the question, “Why?”  G-d understands the need for questions.  The challenge is in turning toward G-d with our questions.

Finding Meaning

It is a great irony that while G-d is responsible for inflicting one’s deepest pain, He is also responsible for providing one’s most meaningful consolation, and the two are often inextricably linked.

Searching for meaning after a tragedy is a personal journey, one that can not be imposed on anyone nor prescribed by time limits but which must be arrived at on one’s own.  Yet controlling personal meaning in the aftermath of a tragedy is often the one factor which can be controlled and can be enormously helpful in moving toward healing and growth.

With time Sarah, the young woman who lost her brother to the terrorist bombing in Israel, struggled to find meaning in her devastating loss.  She said the following:

“I thought of what I could do to commemorate my brother in the way that would mean the most to him.  And I keep coming back to the same thing.  Being close to G-d through prayer is the one thing that I know made him feel complete.  And that is what I want to try to take upon myself to do in the memory of my brother:  Pray regularly and with as much concentration as I can.”

“This doesn’t mean that I still don’t have my questions,” she said.  “I do.”  And then she picked up her siddur [prayer book] and with tears in her eyes she proceeded to ask them.

The author would like to extend her thanks to Moshe Borowski of Chai Lifeline for  the Torah sources quoted in this article.
What is Project Liberty at Ohel?
Project Liberty at Ohel was established to help adults and children feel strong again after September 11.  Project Liberty is supported by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and CMHS (Center for Mental Health Services).  Project Liberty at Ohel provides, education, outreach, counseling and referrals to individuals and groups in the Jewish community affected bv September 11, related trauma in Israel and its aftermath.  For more information, please contact 718-686-3283.

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