On Feb. 21, Norman Blumenthal – the director of trauma, bereavement and crisis at OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services in New York – gave a talk at Bnei Akiva Yeshivat Or Chaim in Toronto about coping with grief, in the wake of many unexpected deaths in the community.
“Within the Sephardic community, within the Ashkenazic community, within the larger Mizrahi of Bnei Akiva community, there have been a lot of funerals and shiva visits,” said Rabbi Seth Grauer, head of school for Or Chaim. “And our feeling, mine with a number of other rabbonim over the last few months, has been (that) we need to bring Dr. Blumenthal – who’s considered to be foremost in that field, who’s an incredible, incredible resource, really an exceptional speaker – to Toronto.”
Blumenthal said that his goal was to explain what grief really is, as many people misunderstand it, and how people can help those who are grieving.
“We chip away at that loneliness, at that isolation, and certainly, if we can somehow or another ameliorate that unimaginable pain, then this evening has been well worth it,” he said.
To illustrate his point, Blumenthal compared the sadness of grief to the sadness of depression. Both afflictions, he said, are characterized by psychological pain, crying and suffering. Yet the methods of treating them are opposites: psychotherapy has a strong success rate of treating depression, but research has shown that it does not help, and may even harm, people experiencing grief.
That’s because the causes of depression and grief are so different. Depression, in Blumenthal’s words, is caused by “a disconnect between a person’s mood and the reality of their lives.” It’s a therapist’s job to alleviate the sadness of depression, to make the person’s mood match their life.
But for grief, the therapist’s role is reversed. “In grief, the sadness is not only justified, in terms of the reality of their lives, but … the pain of grief is necessary,” said Blumenthal. “Ironically, when I’m treating a depressed patient, I measure my success by taking them out of their pain. When I’m doing grief counselling, I measure my success by validating and allowing their pain.”
As Blumenthal explained a little later, pain is an important part of the process. Pain is how we as humans grow. The grief will never go away, but the person experiencing it will become stronger and learn to live with it.
Pain is a sign of how much one cares for a lost loved one, said Blumenthal, calling it “the most piercing experience we have.”
“From time to time, I will get a call from a bereaved parent and they’ll tell me, ‘Dr. Blumenthal, I miss the pain. I want the pain back,’ ” he said. “When you try to do away with the pain of those who are bereaved, you’re depriving them of their love for their child.… We have to respect that and allow it to exist, even though it’s so hard.”
So how can we help grieving people, if we can’t take away their pain? According to Blumenthal, we do so by sharing in their pain. We do what we can to lighten the load, even if it’s not much. Blumenthal said people often times treat the bereaved as if they have a communicable disease, because they fear saying the wrong thing or having nothing to say at all. But he stressed that the bereaved are strong and that what will help them the most is the support of their loved ones.
In the audience was Perla Zaltzman, the Chabad shluchah in Ontario’s Niagara Region. She lost her daughter, Moussia, three and a half years ago, when she was six, and appreciated Blumenthal coming to talk to the community.
“I think it was very educational and insightful and it’s making the general community more aware of a world that they’re very unfamiliar with, which is the world of the bereaved families,” she said. “When they’re aware of this world, they can be more sensitive and less afraid of us.”