It is our fervent wish that we never have to face tragedy of any type. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Har Nof atrocity and the terrible tragedies that preceded it, it has become abundantly clear that teachers (and parents) must be as prepared to help children with grief and loss as they are with their lesson plans. Certainly, teachers are no substitute for professional grief counselors, and every school should make sure that they have easy access to a qualified expert should the need ever arise lo aleinu. However, school faculties and administrations can play a major role in helping students cope, both in the immediate aftermath of tragedy and with its long term effects.
Feelings Happen to Us All
The very first awareness teachers need to have is that after exposure to trauma, some students experience certain emotions for the very first time in their lives and might feel unprecedented mental anguish, embarrassment, guilt, anger, depression, despair and loneliness. Some will experience a number of these feelings simultaneously and conclude there is something very wrong with them. It is therefore critically important to acknowledge that we cannot control our overwhelming feelings; we cannot be expected to control overwhelming feelings, and those feelings will inevitably intrude into all of our lives at some point. It’s important to let children know that it is absolutely normal to possess those horrible feelings.
Avoid Offering Simplistic Answers
To paraphrase a famous Yiddishism, “Remaining with a question is not the end of the world,” but providing shallow, facetious and condescending answers can make a bad situation worse. Making statements such as, “It’s really all for the best,” or “Hashem is punishing us for our aveiros,” can permanently damage a child’s sense of safety and security, damage that may never be fully healed. Despite the fact that teachers often feel it is their job to answer questions, it can be very healing to simply empathize with the feelings in the classroom and perhaps say something along the lines of, “Hashem doesn’t always allow us to know why something happens, but He certainly wants us to care and offer help to everybody who is suffering.”
Keep Your Emotions in Check
This can very difficult for some, but it is nonetheless critical that teachers do their best to remain calm following a tragedy. When an adult authority breaks down in front of children, it may leave them feeling terrified, as though their world is spinning out of control. Expressing sadness verbally is proper and appropriate. In fact, simply verbalizing our emotions can be very helpful to children and may actually enable them to find words of their own to cathartically express the grief they are feeling. Shedding a tear or two might be alright, but uncontrolled sobbing or anger will likely further traumatize a child and should be avoided at all costs.
Maintain Normalcy by Keeping Regular Routines
When tragedy chalilah strikes, a child’s world may become insecure, unstable and chaotic. Maintaining school and classroom routines and normalcy can help soothe and calm a disoriented child. Although time should be generously allotted to process the tragic events, structured periods and at least paying lip service to regularly scheduled subjects are good ideas.
Encourage Your Children or Students to Talk
You may want to explain to your student that while sharing your pain with others may not make it disappear, speaking about it usually makes life more bearable. After preparing the entire class to be caring and sympathetic, gently encourage children to talk about their feelings in any way they see fit. Explain that there is no wrong way to talk about suffering. Take great care not to appear to coerce children into talking about things with which they are clearly uncomfortable. It might also be a good idea to get the conversation started by sharing a moment of personal vulnerability or pain, but be very careful not to burden children with too much information and emotion. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, words can still fail our children. Helping children, especially our youngest students, express themselves through art and other creative mediums can prove to be quite therapeutic as well.
Watch for Behavioral Changes
Keep a keen eye on children who seem to be the most affected by the negative event. Be especially wary of any significant and sudden behavioral changes that may emerge suddenly or over an extended period of time. Deterioration in social attitudes, scholastic achievement, overall demeanor, anger thresholds and emotional regulation can all be signs that a child’s wounds will not likely be healed by time alone and that professional intervention is necessary.
Do Something about It
One of the most difficult feelings to manage in times of trouble is our own utter helplessness in preventing the tragedy and our futility in its aftermath. Taken to an extreme, victimhood can be very paralyzing. As Jews, we know we are placed in this world to make a difference. Organizations such as Hatzolah, Zaka and Misaskim all know they cannot reverse the events of the past, but they certainly can and do make an astounding difference going forward. Launching classroom projects such as learning Mishnayos in the memory of victims, writing get-well and condolence cards, volunteering to help the infirm, writing appropriate letters to people of influence, taking on and charting improvements in middos and collecting tzedakah to directly aid victims can cause grieving children to feel empowered instead of disenfranchised. Middle and high school students can often find a great release in the heartfelt and passionate recitation of Tehillim and by dedicating specific texts and sedorim to merit the departed.
Avoid Denial at all Costs
Probably the very worst things we as teachers can do in the aftermath of traumatic event are to minimize the pain, deny the scope of the event or create an expectation that grief and mourning can simply be shaken off like sawdust. “Come on, just get over it,” is advice often given by those who don’t possess the decency or, sometimes, the courage to feel another’s pain and suffering. They may as well say, “Go away and suffer somewhere else where I don’t have see you!” Emotional healing requires processing, expression and a great deal of time. Without the first two, the third will often make things much worse. Sharing the hurt with sympathetic others and talking about it with “safe” people who really care are often the first steps of therapeutic processing.
Children continually read and analyze the behavior of the caring adults around them. When we are in an unhappy place, they will, more often than not, astutely pick up on it. Take some time out after tragic news to focus on your own emotional state of mind. Solicit chizuk from friends, mentors and guides. Work on regaining emotional composure and spiritual equilibrium. Make meaningful changes in your life, as needed. Above all, try to recapture your positivity, enthusiasm and passion for teaching as soon as you are able to. Because after all is said and done, there are a group of students in your classroom depending upon you to help them get through a pretty tough patch in life.