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November 22, 2014 | 29th Cheshvan 5775

Responding to Children's and Adults' Spiritual Questions and Emotional Needs Following Frightening Tragedies

by Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher

People of all ages have questions about how a good God could let terrible tragedies happen. Following a terrible event or loss they may even cry out this question, tempting those around them to offer their own religious understanding or to engage in philosophical discussion. These are valid questions to be engaged at other times. In times of deep crisis and pain those questions, when posed by adults, really might be heard as, “How could this have happened?  Does anyone care about and protect me and those whom I love? What did I do to deserve this? Is there any order and security or is the world just chaos and mayhem?” When posed by children, depending upon their ages, they may be heard as, “Why didn’t my parents/teachers/caretakers protect me? Is it safe to be away from my parents? Is it safe to go to sleep? This isn’t fair! Are there bad guys everywhere? Is the world a scarier place than I thought? Is anyone in charge?”

The kindest response we can offer is one of listening, conveying acceptance that the questions are being asked and doing and saying the things that help to restore a sense that there is indeed love, justice, protection and order in our world even though what has happened is shocking, unfair, hateful or a result of temporary chaos. We don’t necessarily convey that in words; it can be in hugs offered, compassionate care provided, accompaniment through often agonizing tasks like funeral preparations, gentle and timely restoration of routine. We try to provide the living proof for one another that we live in a world in which there is great goodness even though it is also a world in which terrible tragedies do sometimes occur. The great goodness is expressed in such activities as caretaking, rescuing and rebuilding and can be understood by some as a sign of God in the world.  For most of us, in the immediate moment of tragedy, the question is only partly theological and the care we desperately need is that which human beings, often Divinely inspired, can offer to one another.

This is not to suggest that pastoral counseling and religious questions aren’t important and should not be addressed in the days to come. Some may change their own beliefs because of what has happened. Yet, however tenuous or tentative a person’s belief in God may be, the moment of serious loss and fear is not a good time to toss aside all possibility of belief in a loving compassionate Presence. We needn’t try to convince them or to challenge their doubts and disappointments, it just isn’t helpful either to add our own negative conviction to theirs.  If we hear their statement to be that life and the world seems devoid of love and order and meaning then we can see that agreeing or disagreeing isn’t the issue. It is how it feels to them now and anything we can do on the side of life, calm and meaning will be most valuable.

Children sometimes raise religious questions in the midst of tragedy too, although less often than their parents. It is important to ask them what they think and to try to support what they wish to and are able to believe if it is strengthening and reassuring. We needn’t profess beliefs we don’t have but we can be respectful of their hopes even if our own beliefs and faith may be shaken. Children can be reminded how religion and God can inspire (“teach us” in child language) us to take care of one another and to do the good and wonderful things that are also part of our world. Religious rituals like lighting candles, expressing hopes through prayer and participating in celebrations that support optimism can be very helpful. Children need their sense of security restored and anything that helps with that which is consistent with their family's practice and belief is what counts--including explaining that those who have died are with God. They may not be able to conceive that someone who was here is not somewhere—this is difficult enough for adults. Older children can conceive of people living on within our hearts or of souls returning to God. For younger children it may be much more concrete. Listening to children’s questions as we compose answers is essential because very young children age may not be clear about the permanence of death and the difference between being alive and no longer alive. They still may be most concerned about being separated from parents themselves and are reassured that the child or adult who has died is not "somewhere" suffering and crying out in loneliness.

At moments of traumatic crisis, children’s faith and trust in the people they have counted on to protect them may be significantly shaken, more than their religious faith. What may matter most is to see that adults are working to restore safety. The children need to be allowed to remain close to caring adults and to have a sense of calm, and eventually joy returned to their lives. Perhaps in this way children and adults are more alike than different; all of us need to feel we are not alone and that there are trustworthy sources of hope, security and joy within our world.

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