Many communities continue to face the tragedies of Hurricane Sandy now over a month ago. The following is part of series that Rabbi Heshie Billet of Woodmere is writing to his congregants as they work through the trauma of natural disaster.
December 6, 2012
Guest post by R. Heshie Billet
Rabbi Heshie Billet is rabbi of the Young Israel of Woodmere, a community that was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. This post was sent as an e-mail to his congregants under the title “Chizuk #9 More On Coping, Running, Walking But Not Falling,” the latest in an ongoing, post-hurricane series.
Suffering is an inextricable part of the human condition. As members of that fraternity, we must all face it in whatever inconvenient and untimely way it confronts us. The instinct to question the fairness of the trauma is understandable but impractical. The prophets did not shy away from questions. Moshe Rabbenu challenged G-d on the enigma of Jewish suffering in Egypt and the apparent futility of his mission. Yirmiyahu wrote a book, Lamentations, which begins and ends with questions.
But in the end, the true response to a traumatic event is practical realism with a realistic plan to emerge from the unpleasant reality. If we have a child whose circumstances challenge parents, we are told to help the child based on the reality of his needs, “ba’asher hu sham”. In the words of Chazal, “chanoch la’na’ar al pi darko”. Educate the real child, not the virtual, ideal child you may prefer to be dealing with. If in the end we wish to rebuild Zion, then Yeshayahu tells us to bring justice to Zion. G-d says to Moshe to tell the Israelites to stop complaining about the Egyptians pursuing them on the banks of the Sea of Reeds. Rather, move forward into the sea and escape the enemies!
We have all been traumatized by SANDY. I remember the stunned looks on every one’s faces on the Tuesday morning of the flood. We were all paralyzed. Then we realized that we would do better without the unwelcome indoor pool which invaded our homes. So we pumped! Once we did that, we realized that our ruined appliances and possessions had to be removed from our homes. So we schlepped! Next we realized that mold was a threat to our health and homes. So we cut our walls, ripped up our carpets and tore up our floors. Next we realized that we had to rebuild our broken homes. So we hired contractors. Now we are waiting and bewildered. And some of us are paralyzed and homeless. But we must cope!! There is no alternative.
Here are some personal thoughts from my daughter, Dr. Dassi Jacobson, who has personally dealt with trauma in her life and who is a licensed clinical psychologist living in Israel. She addresses some similar, and some additional issues to what I addressed in chizuk #8.
A few ideas from the perspective of a psychologist, mother, wife, and daughter who sometimes works with trauma victims and who has spent a lot of time and energy working through her own trauma.
The Mechanics Of Trauma
It is exactly the point now, 6-10 weeks post Sandy, where post traumatic symptoms start to emerge. In the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, it is simply too real and scary for the brain and the imagination to encounter the trauma in a way that we can process it. Now that time has passed, the brain can begin to take what has happened and try to make sense of it. This is hard enough when the trauma is a one time ordeal, and it is certainly far more complicated when there is the ongoing trauma of the recovery, in which survivors are frequently encountering new traumas such as bad news from the insurance company or regarding the structural integrity of their damaged homes.
Irritability, sadness, sudden tears, outbursts of anger, insomnia, flashbacks, inability to relax or enjoy things, and hurricane (all my things drowning in lake water and sewage, or even my family drowning) or non-hurricane related nightmares (my family being attacked by terrorists, dying in a car accident, my boss firing me in a humiliating way when I desperately need my job) are all common post traumatic symptoms. Some people may even find themselves suffering from panic attacks or depression. Everyone is at risk, though people who have a history of these problems are even more vulnerable. (If someone has a history and is feeling symptomatic, it would be a good idea to contact their mental health provider. A few booster therapy sessions or a temporary increase in a medication dosage can be very helpful with coping).
There are many coping styles that are OK in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Some people need to talk about what happened a lot. Some don’t really want to talk about it. Some cry often, some are stoic. Some people feel out of sorts, overwhelmed, and don’t know where to start. Some throw themselves into their work. In a family or in a significant relationship, it is often hard when coping styles are contradictory or even when they are not opposite but are just not in sync. If a spouse doesn’t want to talk about the trauma, for example, it is not necessary to force him/her to talk. He is not necessarily in denial, it just is not what helps him. If his wife wants to talk about her losses or her worries, that’s fine too. She’s not being obsessive, she’s just processing. But neither should not try to force the other to conform to their partner’s coping style. It is important for people to follow their natural inclinations, as long as the inclinations are balanced. What is worrisome is anything that reaches an extreme where it interferes with adaptive functioning. Not getting out of bed, neglecting the kids, not going to work (not for one day, but on an ongoing basis), feeling apathetic to the point of giving up on all small and large pleasures–these are the concerns. If you recognize these things in any of your friends or loved ones, it is important to seek professional help.
What About The Children?
Parents may see regression in their children. Bed-wetting or daytime accidents, wanting to sleep with parents, tantrums, or a decline in school performance are all normal. Especially for children who have been displaced for a while and are just returning home now, or who are still displaced, these symptoms are in fact normal and expected under the circumstances. Kids who have been displaced and have been living in the home of a neighbor or family member may have in fact spent weeks sleeping in a room with several family members when they were guests (the more accurate term is refugees) at the temporary home. In the aftermath of the disaster, that may have provided comfort and safety. Moving back home to the trauma site can be scary. A certain amount of regression can be tolerated, with gentle prodding toward normative behaviors. Here again, what is important is to keep an eye out for extreme decline in functioning or for regression that lasts for a long period of time. Children do not see the world with the same long term view as adults do and will often bounce back more quickly, especially when they perceive that their significant adults are providing them with structure and safety.
Knowing that different coping styles are OK can relieve a lot of tension. Being able to differentiate between a normal reaction to an abnormal situation and a problematic reaction is also helpful. It can be a comfort to know that most of what people are experiencing is normal and expected considering the circumstances. Also, the vast majority of people are resilient, and can encounter life’s bumps and curve-balls and be fine in the end. It doesn’t mean the whole process will be a walk in the park.
It is helpful to know that the return home can be particularly hard, especially when home looks different, and now is a place associated with the warmth and love of the past, but also with the devastation of Sandy. It is such a relief to return to your own space, but the real mourning process begins then. Looking for that comforting novel you’ve read so many times, wanting to look at those old family photos of the ice cream fight that always made you laugh, or wanting to just spread out on your living room couch- these are reflexes that don’t go away just because these things are gone, drowned in Sandy’s aggressive waters. And let’s face it, the new pristine copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is not as comforting as the dog-eared, bent, and slightly ripped old friend that is gone. It is not an exaggeration to say that looking for things that you know were ruined and dumped on the curb is akin to the reflex to pick up the phone and call a loved one who won’t answer because he or she has passed on to the next world. Obviously it is not the same, but the loss of so many material possessions cuts deep, even when we can comfort ourselves by saying that they are just things.
Helping Our Children, Helping Ourselves
Additional ways to help our kids and ourselves feel safe? Try to stay busy and active. Try to be involved in a routine that resembles “regular” as much as possible. Talk to school aged kids about the help being provided- communal resources, government agencies, self help lectures, and school guidance resources. Even if the adults know that not all the needs are being fully addressed, school aged kids feel safer and comforted knowing there is order in the world, and there are people whose job it is to help. For adults, even if it is hard to find the energy and verve to enjoy things, make sure to do things that are self nurturing. This sounds like a bit of a joke when it feels like all one can do is try to keep all the balls in the air- kids, work, demolition and renovation, devastating financial loss, not having a car yet, no heat in the house, and on and on. But it is so important. A coffee with a friend, a manicure (It’s a lot cheaper than a therapy session, or you can even trade manicuring with a friend. Warm up the lotion and the wet washcloth in the microwave!), a short outing with a spouse, a bubble bath, sitting alone in a warm quiet place (you may have to drive to Kennedy airport and find a quiet corner in a grand hotel lobby…) and thinking in a focused mindful way about a warm memory, like the time your 5 year old son/grandson/niece looked at you with sparkling, sincere, loving eyes and said, “you’re pretty”. If one thinks creatively, these small comforts do not have to cost any of the money needed to fix the heat and hot water tank, or to put food on the table. And keep getting out there and say what you need. Never turn down an offer of help. Be specific.
It is so, so hard to be in an emotional place where there is no room for petty concerns. After our family suffered the devastating loss of our two year old daughter, I remember thinking that now that I truly, truly know what it is important, I will never get angry about something stupid like carpool politics. But you know what- when I found myself getting angry about carpool politics, I knew I was going to be alright. These small travails are a gift and a triumph. Of course, on the flip side, when we are so overwhelmed by devastation and loss, we may find ourselves angry over the equivalent of carpool politics in a way that feels out of proportion; this can be scary. But it is also normal. Sometimes grieving over our real devastating losses can be too overwhelming. And when we know that that is why we are getting so upset over small things, it can help us regain control.
I want to return to the point I made earlier that most people are resilient. This is a huge comfort. Each person will find the things that help him/her hold on. It is important to be honest. Things will never be how they were before. There is before Sandy and after Sandy. It is both a communal tragedy and a deeply personal tragedy for so many. It is important to remember the lightness, even the relative carefree times pre-Sandy (taking into account that life is surely not always simple even when your home, school, shul, etc. has not been destroyed in a hurricane), and to remember that while right now, the victims of Sandy are living Sandy 24/7, eventually this will be a memory. The after-Sandy can grow into a life as successful, even more so, than the pre-Sandy. It takes patience, time, effort, and a good deal of surrender to the idea that we can not control everything. This last idea, the idea that we do not have control, is perhaps the hardest. But it may also be the most important. When we surrender, and acknowledge that we can not control, that is the moment of opportunity to seize control of the things we can control. Like love, laughter, and catching the moments of life in the darkness. Like spending quality time with loved ones. Like focusing on a warm thought or memory. Washing, drying, folding, and putting away a pile of clean towels. Meeting a tight deadline at work or closing a deal. Reading or learning something inspiring. Eating a Hershey Kiss and noticing its warm, chocolaty, velvety feel as you suck on it. Taking the kids to the zoo on a not too freezing day. Taking a break from Sandy. Life will not be the same. But it will not be defined by Sandy. And it will be satisfying and beautiful.
Rav Soloveitchik once commented on the verse in Isaiah 40:31 which describes the tireless ‘koyai Hashem’, believers in G-d who will run and not tire (“ya’ru’tzu ve’lo yi’ga’u”) and walk and not tire (“yeilchu ve’lo yi’a’fu”). The Rov pointed out that every Hebrew synonym has a different connotation. What then is the difference between the two different Hebrew words, “yi’ga’u” and “yi’a’fu”, used by Isaiah to mean “tire”?
The Rov explained the tiredness of “ye’gi’ah” means a tiredness of achievement and accomplishment. We say, “ye’gi’ah ka’pechah ki tochal, ashrecha ve’tov lach” that we are fortunate to eat the fruits of our tiredness. On the other hand, the tiredness of “a’yei’fut” is the tiredness of failure and frustration. Esau came in from the field “ve’hu a’yeif”. Esau was tired with the frustration of failure and sin. The Rabbis say that on that day he did not succeed as a hunter and instead committed some serious sins.
Before the Israelites were attacked by Amalek the Torah describes them as “ayeif ve’yagaiah velo yarai Elokim”. There were those who felt that they needed a vacation because they escaped from Egypt and survived the Egyptians at the sea. They needed to rest after accomplishing so much. And there were those (the Eruv Rav group) who already missed Egypt and wanted to return. They were tired and frustrated with living in the desert. But both groups were wrong and described as “not fearing G-d” (“ve’lo yarai Elokim”).
They did not understand what Isaiah expresses so beautifully. A person who sincerely believes in G-d never tires. When they succeed and complete one project, they do not tire, “lo yi’ga’u”. They run, “yarutzu”, to the next task, project, or challenge. And even if the going is rough, the challenges and suffering are great, they walk (not run), “yei’le’chu” to the next task, project, or challenge.
So it is with us as SANDY has left us in its wake. We must run, if we can. And if we experience roadblocks or hardships, then we must walk until at the end we find salvation.