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Chapter Two:
What Can I Do?

This question always arises when we encounter someone who is suffering from a loss. The natural reaction of many people is, "I'm not a professional, but is there anything I can do? Although I feel uncomfortable and sure that I'll do something wrong, I feel stupid just standing there!"

What is needed today is not necessarily more professionals — though that might help — but for each of us to learn to respond with the warm and human part of ourselves. To do this we must acknowledge our own fears — which often block our natural instincts — and discover a way to communicate with and support the bereaved. We have to remove some of the trepidation that blocks our potential to offer help.

When disaster strikes, it often hits our whole community. We watch our neighbors or friends suffering and feel helpless.

One reason for this is the natural reluctance people feel about getting close to a bereaved family. People would really like to do something, say something, but they feel inadequate and afraid. You can see this on the faces at the scene of a disaster or a funeral. It is so much easier to let a professional handle it, we rationalize, "He knows what he is doing. What do I know? It is really better for them (those suffering) to leave it in the hands of a professional." With the arrival of a professional we may feel (or hope) that we are not needed — and beat a hasty and grateful retreat.

Yet support for the bereaved does not and cannot come only from a social worker or psychologist. I have seen the listening, empathy, and support of neighbors and friends do far more for someone suffering than all the professional's expertise.

Each of us has a choice when confronted by tragedy. We can block it out, finding a hundred good reasons why we should not be involved. Or we can expose ourselves to pain, hurt, anger, and grief — and in return become a bit more human. This is especially true in a society like ours here in Israel.

Every terror/rocket attack and tragedy is taken personally. One way or another, we are all connected to someone who was at the site of the incident. Our immediate response to news of an attack is a desperate need for information and an urgent need to make contact with each other, to reach out and feel the comfort of sharing (which is even more important).

It is not surprising that after hearing of a bombing our first reaction is to reach for our cell phones. There's even a joke, a little black humor, about that:

Question: What's the fastest way of knowing when there is a terrorist attack?

Answer: The cell phone lines crash.

There is also a natural difference in how we relate to those who have lost someone to terror if we know the family or know someone who knows the family. It is easier to keep loss in a closed box when we really don't know the bereaved or the victim. Then the death is not personal — and most of us try to keep it that way.

Here in Israel there is an additional reaction — the let me in syndrome. Israel is such a small country that we often know someone connected to the person who died — and it usually just takes a short conversation to find this out. Maybe we get a phone call from a brother-in-law who tells us that he worked with a sister of the deceased. Maybe we get on a bus the next day and ask why our usual bus driver isn't there — and are told that his son was one of those killed. The connection exists; all we have to do is open ourselves for it. We often look for that connection, especially when it comes to terror attacks. There is a need to feel the pain, to feel connected with the tragedy, to re-affirm that our whole country is linked together as a family — and we are part of that family. There is actually a comfort in knowing that we are part of the bereaved family, knowing we are not alone.

How do We React to News of a Disaster?

First the frantic phone calls begin, "Where are my children?" "Whom do I know that's downtown today?" "Whom should I call?" When the cell phones stop working because of overload, we become even more anxious.

Then we connect ourselves to where the attack took place, I was right there two weeks ago." "I would have been there, but the bus was slow and..." "My cousin works just next door." You know the routine. Almost everyone can find some connection.

We sit like zombies in front of our TV or radio, listening again and again to the same reports. We see the same footage for the tenth time and watch yet another expert telling us what he thinks or heard or knows — or thinks he heard or knows.

We wait tensely, in a macabre ritual, for the numbers — and after what seems like an eternity - the names. We listen, holding our breath after each name. Did we know him? Do we know someone who knew him? To paraphrase an American commercial, In a country as small as ours, tragedy is never more than a phone call away." We always know someone who knew him. Yet until we make the connection we have not completed our rite of pain.

For example, several years ago a soldier was killed near Hebron. Although I was saddened by the news, the pain was dull, removed. Once I found out that his father was a co-worker, the pain became much sharper. Then, when my son called to inform me that the boy had been his classmate and that he was going to the funeral, the grief became personal. Images began to come into my mind — my colleague in his office, my son's class pictures with the boy, and the look on my son's face after the funeral — and it really hurt.

Another example occurred several years ago when all of Israel connected to a young American/Israeli soldier, Nachshon Wachsman, who was kidnapped and held by Palestinian terrorists. The tape released by the terrorists and broadcast over and over on TV showed a frightened young man appealing for help. His mother also appeared on TV, asking all Jews throughout the world to light Sabbath candles that Friday night. Ten of thousands of people lit Sabbath candles for the first time in their lives. Thousands more converged on the Western Wall in a special prayer service. Countless people, each in their own way, prayed for Nachshon's release. And everyone felt an acute sense of personal loss when they learned about his murder and the failure of the special forces to free him..

After the World Trade Center attack and the disbelief that followed it, we recognized the same pattern: People in Internet chat rooms would ask, "Did you hear about ....?" People related stories of an uncle's friend who had just come down, or worse, just gone up.

Such conversations and connections have a dual purpose. They enable us to become part of a mourning group, which in itself is comforting. Sharing pain helps to diminish our own. The Talmudic sages recognized this 2000 years ago, saying, "The troubles of many are half a consolation." It is not God forbid that we want to see other suffering but that the pain shared makes the burden a little lighter. Furthermore, for many of us the feeling that "I knew him..." is essential to break down our natural defenses against pain. But if the victim was a friend of a relative of a... we become personally connected to the tragedy, which gives us the right to enter the circle of grief — and consolation.