In addition to pain and grief, traumatic experiences sometimes leave gifts in their wake
Oriyah Dobkin* was playing with her children when her sister called her to tell her to get on a plane to NY immediately.
“Is it Avi?” she asked, referring to their brother.
“Yes,” said her sister.
“Is he okay?”
“No, he’s not.”
Oriyah started to murmur pirkei Tehillim, then stopped and asked if Avi was still alive. “No,” was the response. The floor collapsed beneath her feet.
Avi had been battling an opioid addiction for years, cycling in and out of rehabilitation centers. Oriyah and her family had been living in fear, never knowing if he was going to make it through. He’d managed to hold tight, even showing some improvement over the previous few months. To suddenly lose him, when she thought he was doing better, was devastating.
Nearly everyone on the planet would, if given the choice, prefer to avoid any traumatic events in their lives. However, most people will, at some point or another, and to differing degrees, experience trauma. Often, traumatic events can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sufferers can experience a variety of physical, mental, and emotional consequences, including anxiety, depression, panic attacks, eating disorders, migraines, and intrusive thoughts and memories.
For a long time, the presumption was that trauma by default creates emotional harm, and with “luck” and intervention, a select number of trauma victims can eventually heal and continue life as normal.
In the mid-1990s, psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun published Trauma & Transformation: Growing in the Aftermath of Suffering. This work outlined a newly recognized psychological phenomenon where people experience positive life changes following a traumatic life event. These changes include finding a deeper meaning in and heightened appreciation of life, enhanced relationships, shifted priorities, and a widening of an individual’s emotional lens.
During the initial days following her brother’s death, Oriyah was in a state of shock. The possibility of her brother overdosing and dying had existed, but she didn’t believe it would actually happen. As she began to process his death and work through her grief, she resumed her regular life.
In the following months, Oriyah started to notice that along with her sadness and grief, she’d been having positive experiences as well. Every morning, she felt motivated to utilize her day to its maximum potential, and she became keenly focused on fulfilling her life’s mission. “I was surprised to experience anything positive related to the tragedy of losing my brother,” she says.
Rochel Katz,* who lives in New Jersey, had a huge grin on her face as she was driving to work one morning three years ago. She hadn’t had a chance to tell her husband yet, but she’d gotten a positive pregnancy test that morning while he was in shul.
They’d been hoping to get this news for a while, and she was giddy at the thought of sharing it with him. She planned to tell her parents right after that.
Her phone rang. It was her husband, and he sounded frantic. He mumbled something about her family and an accident and told her to meet him at the hospital. When she got there, she learned the horrific news: Her parents and two of her siblings had died in a car crash.
“My first thought, which to this day I carry a lot of grief over was don’t miscarry. Whatever you do, don’t miscarry. I remember that thought, and then I remember falling down onto the hospital floor. The pain was all-consuming and unbearable. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. In fact, I couldn’t breathe, and the hospital hooked me up to oxygen.”
Other family members organized all four levayos while Rochel was immobilized by grief. She had a brother learning in yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael, and until he came home, she was in a state of shock. The arrival of her freshly orphaned younger brother jolted her into action, and she spent the week of shivah “alternating between weeping into my pillow and then being strong for my younger brother.”
On the fourth day of shivah, she looked up at her husband and said, “Oh, I found out just before you called me that I’m pregnant.” They sat there together and cried.
For Rochel, the growth wasn’t immediate. She spent months burdened by the grief of losing her parents and two siblings and the trauma of having her life so suddenly and drastically changed. “Everything had been going as it should. I was married and living close to my family. We waited a bit longer than we would have liked, but we weren’t worried about having children. My husband was doing well, and I had a good job. I knew people sometimes lose people they’re close to, even suddenly, but who loses four family members in one shot? I spent a long time feeling sadness, anger, and guilt.”
A year and half later, things started to shift for Rochel. After going to counseling and having many lengthy discussions with their rav, she entered into what she calls “a sad acceptance, but also a deeper and richer way of life.”
“What can I say? I still experience grief and anger, especially at what would be a family simchah, like when my baby was born or when my younger brother got married, and I basically arranged it all. I don’t wear rose-colored glasses, but I also don’t live with any notion of how things are supposed to be.
“My relationship with Hashem, and with the idea that He gives me a new day, each and every morning, is different than it had been before the accident. It’s close, it’s personal, and it’s mine. I didn’t have that before. I’ve become a more mature and sensitive person, and I believe it has also made me invest more into my marriage and into being a mother. I like who I am more now.
“Would I trade my new reality? I know I’m supposed to say, ‘no I wouldn’t.’ But I would. I honor my growth, but I’m not afraid to say, ‘I’d rather have my family. I’d rather they wouldn’t have died.’ ”
Oriyah became acutely aware that she’ll never know which day is her last, and while this could easily trigger anxiety in some, it instead supercharged her days, gave her motivation to accomplish more, and transformed her into a more patient mother. She always wanted to become a therapist, but pushed it to the back burner, concerned about the years it takes to build a practice and make a feasible income. But this experience provided the final nudge to leave the fears behind and dive in.
“I speak to my mother every day now. I don’t do it out of fear or anxiety, but rather because I now have a greater appreciation for her presence in my life.”
During the shivah, Oriyah was inundated with stories of her brother’s acts of chesed and his consistency in attending shiurim. Yes, he was abusing opioids, but always had a desire to connect to Hashem and grow. “Because of that, I now live with a heightened and real understanding that people are hidden gems. It became easier for me to judge others favorably and recognize that people aren’t good or bad. People are trying.” Oriyah added that “while I’ve always been resilient, the personal changes I experienced after Avi’s death were something entirely different.”
The Resilience Connection
Mrs. Chaya Rochel Satt MSc maintains a private practice in Yerushalayim and specializes in trauma intervention using both EMDR and somatic experiencing. She explains that resiliency and post-traumatic growth, while connected, aren’t necessarily dependent on one another. Resiliency is defined by one’s ability to “bounce back,” and post-traumatic growth is about how a person’s appreciation for life improves, how they gain a deeper meaning of life, have enhanced relationships, or experience increased motivation or a shift in priorities.
“While those who are resilient are more likely to experience post-traumatic growth, one doesn’t necessarily equal another.”
Mrs. Satt explains that trauma is something overwhelming for the brain and body to process. Often, a person will freeze in the moment, and their body will revisit the trauma in ways that are both difficult and painful, physically and emotionally. Processing trauma means moving the experience from our present to our past, where it belongs.
A person can experience post-traumatic growth in response to one part of an event and yet still experience PTSD in response to another. More often than not, immediately following a traumatic event, healthy people will experience feelings of shock, grief, sadness, and anger. Post-traumatic growth, explains Mrs. Satt, happens after that.
She cautions that healthy post-traumatic growth shouldn’t be dramatic. “If someone experiences a traumatic car accident and then decides to quit the stable job they love to pass out flyers about road safety all day, says all of sefer Tehillim every time they get in a car, or suddenly becomes hyper-spiritual, that’s a red flag not to be mistaken for post-traumatic growth. Healthy post-traumatic growth would find the individual becoming more sensitive to people’s physical ailments, having more patience while driving, or volunteering for an organization to promote safe driving practices.”
Rochel had to work through anxiety around driving and still remains more nervous than before, but is trying to do something productive related to her family’s tragedy. She started making Tefillas Haderech cards l’illui nishmas each family member. “Sometimes, I wake up, and I feel consumed by grief. Sometimes I wake up and feel overwhelmed with gratitude for my life and for all of the blessings I do have. I never knew I could feel such grief and such gratitude together, as if they’re holding hands. But I do.”
All’s Well That Ends Well
Life experiences that have “happy endings” can also be traumatic. Esther Mayer Deutch, who lives in the Old City of Yerushalayim, had two healthy children very close in age. While expecting her third, doctors discovered her baby had severe chromosomal abnormalities and warned that it was likely the pregnancy wouldn’t make it to term, which was the case. Following her loss, she didn’t become pregnant immediately as she had previously, but was both delighted and terrified when she discovered she was pregnant again. After a routine and healthy pregnancy, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
Three days after his birth, he came down with a fever, and the hospital put their baby in the NICU. All tests came back normal, until they realized he had myocarditis and was going into heart failure. His condition deteriorated rapidly, and he had multiple heart attacks. He was transferred to Schneider’s Children’s Hospital, and the doctors decided to put him on an ECMO machine. Esther and her husband were told that the baby had a 10 percent chance of survival.
Being told all this, while postpartum, and having lost her previous baby at six months gestation, was as Esther put it, “trauma and panic on steroids.” After a week on ECMO, the baby was taken off due to a bacterial infection. Miraculously, he survived. Erev Yom Kippur, five weeks after his birth, they brought him home, and today he is a healthy toddler.
Throughout the ordeal, Jews all around the world were davening for Tinok ben Esther Mazal. They brought Shabbos in earlier and took on mitzvos as a merit for his complete recovery. People in her community dropped off toys and food for her older children. But the effects were farther-reaching than just the physical.
The Old City is a mostly Yerushalmi community known as Zilberman’s. As an American baalas teshuvah living there, Esther always felt a bit out of place, despite being warmly received.
“While I was overwhelmed with intense fear, panic, and sadness during those five weeks in the hospital, once the trauma ended, I was overwhelmed with gratitude and love for my community and the greater Jewish community as a whole. To this day, sometimes I’ll be walking in the Rova with my son, and an older woman will approach, asking if this is the baby she’d said Tehillim for. There were women going to the Kosel round the clock to daven for us. I didn’t have to cook for months. My children were taken care of. People who never met me or my family finished sefer after sefer of Tehillim.
“It moved me so deeply, and there was a big shift in how I see my community and my place within it. I feel more secure, more connected, more belonging, and more love. I used to think people didn’t care about others. I was wrong about that, and my experience has made me a more caring person. My worldview has drastically changed.”
Esther has been inspired to make time to daven more for others and tries to make shidduchim. Additionally, her close relationships improved as well.
“My husband and I react so differently to traumas, and our ability to come together and give each other what we needed, even though there were many hard moments through this trauma, made our good marriage even greater, with a deeper love and understanding, thank G-d.”
Additionally, Esther’s relationship with her children also changed. Her oldest children came quickly and easily, and she feels she took it for granted. Now she has an enhanced sense of cherishment with her children.
“We named him Natan Nissim. I kept begging Hashem to let me keep him, thus Natan. My relationship with him is different. Whenever I look at him, I see what happened, but in a good way. I see that Hashem answered us for the good. I’m experiencing parenthood with him in a completely different way than I would have otherwise.
Esther did go to therapy following her experience and feels it was highly beneficial.
Dr. Jacob L. Freedman, a Jerusalem-based psychiatrist and Mishpacha columnist, often tells his patients that if they can process their trauma in a healthy way, then it’s possible to see the experience from a more objective perspective. “While trauma is certainly unwanted, it doesn’t always have to be 100 percent negative. Sometimes, with serious work, we’re able to become infinitely stronger due to our traumatic experiences.”
Mrs. Satt points out that trauma therapy isn’t always needed. In fact, at times she gets clients who went through a difficult situation and were told by a parent or mentor they need therapy. “The patient shows up due to traumatic circumstances, but without a presence of pain. When I point that out, it’s difficult and confusing for them. The post-trauma period isn’t black and white.
“A person can need and benefit from therapy, while also experiencing positive outcomes. Post trauma is rarely neutral. If clients don’t have the stress factor or have worked through it, I often see that their relationships become richer, and they have increased goals.”
“I experienced a miracle,” Esther explains. “Yes, it originated in trauma, but when you go through something that profound, everything changes. And so do you.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 756)
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