Serving as an Educator at a Time of Loss, Pain and Grief

A note to fellow educators in Pittsburgh from Shuki Taylor, CEO & Founder of M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education

To my dear friends in Pittsburgh,

I’ve been thinking about you nonstop in the past few hours. I am reflecting a lot on the years when I was working with victims of terror in Israel and I can feel the immense pain, fear and devastation you are experiencing.

I was frustrated that, being so far away, there isn’t much I can do.

Then I realized that perhaps I can help by sharing some thoughts and ideas to help you face the coming hours, days and weeks – as humans, as parents and as educators.

I have drawn these ideas from this and next week’s Parsha, both of which offer a lot of guidance for how to choose our response at a time of grief and pain.

These ideas for you to consider as educators. But they also apply to you as parents, as friends and as partners.

Open a tent

Avraham is resting from his Brit – his circumcision – and God is visiting him. During this visit Avraham notices three people upon him. Despite being in God’s presence, he runs towards his guests and invites them into his tent.

Having an open tent, a physical space to invite your community into, is vital. At a time like this people are feeling a lot of things, and most likely they are feeling lonely and scared. Gather to share in that loneliness and fear. Maybe, just maybe, the many things you are all feeling will be less hard to bear.

I mean this in the most practical and physical sense. Set up a space, ideally outdoors, and reach out to as many people as possible to invite them into it.

Put up a ‘Kotel’ board where your students can write or draw feelings and prayers.

Place at the center a box into which students can place letters to others in the community.

Facilitate circles where students can share stories.

Avraham opens his tent while in tremendous pain. Perhaps he needs community to help him overcome it.

He invites his guests in while God is visiting him. Perhaps he realizes that God, right now, isn’t enough.

Share your pain with your students. The more they see your pain – the more their own pain will be validated. If you feel – as I’m sure many of you do now – distant from God, or that God, right now, isn’t enough, share that with your students. The tent you open must be a space of deep and authentic humanity.

Count and recount

The Torah describes Sarah’s death by counting her years in multiple numbers: “The years of Sarah’s life: One hundred years. And twenty years. And seven years. The years of Sarah’s life.”

The midrash explains that each of these ‘counting’s’ represents something different about Sarah. I think that this stresses the importance of counting and recounting during a time of grief and loss.

Trauma often occurs when our internal sense of order – the way in which we understand and make sense of the world – collapses. The gravity of the event and the shock surrounding it befogs us and we’re no longer in control. What helps is trying to regain some of that control by attempting to make sense – in the most practical way – of what happened.

Start this by speaking about what happened. Tell – and invite your students to tell – the story of what has unfolded. Do this over and over again. Write on paper the following questions and hang them around a room:

Where were you when…?

What where you in the middle of…?

What was the first thing you did after hearing…?

What was the second thing?

Invite your students to stand next to a question they want to answer and ask some of them to share. Then have them walk over to another question, and so on.

The more you and your students recount aspects story, the more you will be able to regain some sense of control.

When in trauma, often we cannot see our way out of the fog. The Torah ‘chunks’ Sara’s years. One hundred years. And twenty years. And seven years. Chunking up time can sometimes help. Invite your students to recount their stories in chunks: what happened during the attack; what happened in the 2-3 hours that followed; what happened when you went to bed and when you woke up.

Place on the floor poster board – each with a ‘chunk’ of time. On post it notes ask your students to write what they did / what they felt during this ‘chunk’. Then share some of those moments.

Speaking about time in chunks might help in regaining a sense of order.

Talk about what is hard

When God informs Avraham that he is going to demolish Sodom and Amora, Avraham tries to negotiate with him. He engages in a long and impassioned argument in efforts to try save innocent victims.

There is no way you can make sense of what happened to you, and no reasoning will ever make any of the pain disappear. But you can – and must – help your students speak about it.

To cry about how painful it is.

To shout about how wrong it is.

To be angry with the world.

With God.

Teach your students that no emotion is invalid.

Ask them, if they were – like Avraham – talking with God now, what would they say. Then validate what they say by writing it out or saying it back to them.

Sometimes it’s hard to express what we’re feeling, because the things we’re feeling are so unfamiliar and we can’t quite find the right words for them.

It might help to print out images or words describing different feelings, and asking your students to select what captures their current state best. This page might be useful, and you can find more online.

Hold and be held

After Hagar is left alone in the wilderness with her son Yishmael, she fears his death and steps away crying. She does not want to see her son die. An angel sent from God appears before her and says “Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand.”

At a time of desperation and grief, the advice Hagar receives is in a series of physical actions, and the physical actions described here might help cultivate a sense of strength and support.

Sit with your students and hold hands. Have each student say to the other ‘I am now holding your hand in mine’ and then do so in silence. Keep sitting in silence, holding each other’s hands, for as long as you can.

Then, ask your students what it felt like to hold and what it felt like to be held.

Hope together

Only after Yitzhak brings his wife, Rivkah, into his dead mother’s tent, does the Torah say that he was comforted. The midrash explains that in Sarah’s lifetime a candle remained burning from week to week, and that when she died, it burned out. Only when Rivkah came did the candle light again.

Share this story with your students, and ask them to share what light, in your community, has burned out.

It could be the light of those who died. It could be the light of security that is no longer felt. It could be the light of innocence that has been taken away. For each person – young or old – a light burned out today.

Explore what that light was, and just as importantly, validate the fact that with that light gone, you are now facing more darkness.

At the same time, remind your students – and yourself – that there will be a time when a new light will be lit. Ask them what that light might look like. What type of light might bring you, your students and your community a sense of hope?

You might want to have this conversation in candle light so that while acknowledging the loss and the darkness, you can see, smell and feel the light of hope.

Let yourself cry

After Sarah dies, the Torah says that Avraham came to mourn his wife and to cry for her. The Torah shares many of Avraham’s great accomplishments. And it also tells us that when he lost what was most precious to him – he mourned and cried. Because he too was human.

Yes, you are educators, but first and foremost you are humans. You are experiencing a tremendous amount of loss, fear and pain. Let yourselves mourn and cry. Just as the Torah doesn’t hide Avraham’s tears – don’t hide yours. Please take the space you need to feel and express your own humanity. And please do this before and above doing anything else.