My parents survived the Holocaust, so I was raised by people who had been wrenched through and through by horror and loss. Mom spent ages 14 to 17 in a work camp (once stealing potatoes from under her captors' noses to feed a friend sick with typhus), and came home to find her mother and two sisters were dead. Dad was imprisoned at Auschwitz and Dachau. Despite the pain poised just beneath the surface, my parents were role models for how to wrest joy and meaning from tragedy.
Two snippets: Mom's ability to laugh like a banshee at her own jokes, even when she alone found them funny. Dad's determination to be a moral person — the kind who, if he found a quarter in a phone booth (remember them?), returned it to the phone company.
I am a therapist, and when I see the fortitude of my patients in dealing with catastrophic events beyond their control I am reminded anew of what human beings can discover about themselves once they accept that they can't undo a tragedy — but they can relate to it in a new, healthier way. Here are six positive things that can emerge from grief.
1) You have the freedom of knowing you've already experienced the worst thing imaginable
For a decade, the main role for my patient Carrie (all patients' names are changed) was as caretaker to her dying husband. Over the years she'd given Tom her all — including a kidney. Despite this gift of love, the desperately ill man who had also endured esophageal cancer, congestive heart failure, and multiple strokes was eventually moved to a nursing home. Carrie sobbed in my office many times: "I know Tom wants to give up, but I can't let him go. If he dies, there is nothing left for me. I might as well be buried, too."
When you stuff your junk into a closet, eventually the door will spring open and crap will fall on your head
After his death, her grief was titanic. And yet, three weeks after the burial she admitted, "I miss him with every breath I take, but there is also relief. When the phone rings, my heart doesn't leap to my throat. I don't need to worry something terrible happened. It already has."
Within six months, Carrie was experiencing a renaissance. Her life, cribbed and cramped for so long, dependent solely on her husband's wavering physical state, suddenly took flight. She traveled abroad with her teenage daughter, joined a book club, and started job-hunting. "Life is different than I imagined it would be on my wedding day," she told me. "Things obviously haven't turned out the way I wished, but there are new dreams I am pursuing."
2) You realize your own resilience
One of the worst days of my life occurred over Labor Day weekend when I was 17. An afternoon of mocha brownies, sparkling sunshine, and backgammon was ruined when I took a phone call from a cousin. Her father had been hit by a car and was in surgery. I had to tell my mother this devastating news about her older brother, another Holocaust survivor, and watch the laughter drain from her eyes.
My uncle died on the operating table. Initially I feared my mother would not recover from this latest atrocity. The sounds coming from her throat as she lay in bed were guttural and endless. How much tragedy could a person endure?
For a solid year she wore black and forswore parties, movies — any entertainment. Mom was changed, another bullet fragment permanently lodged in her heart. But her spirit proved resilient. After the first terrible months, laughter returned to our house. She said to me once, "Sherry, so many things have happened that could have ended me, that I thought would end me — but I'm too stubborn to let this take me down."
Whenever something happens that I initially don't see how I can survive, I look in the mirror and say, "I'm too stubborn to let this take me down."
3) Your priorities change — for the better
Anna said during one of our early sessions, "I have no savings because I'm constantly putting money into a wacky business scheme or splurging on five expensive handbags. I guess I'm afraid to say no because I don't want to miss out on something wonderful." This same philosophy applied to romance: "I hook up with inappropriate men because it could be tons of fun."
Alas, most of the time she wound up "regretful and feeling guilty over having made impulsive and often stupid decisions that wind up hurting me."
A devastating life event altered this pattern: Anna's brother was killed in a drive-by shooting. This act of random violence caused indescribable agony to Anna and her parents. When Anna was finally able to contemplate rejoining the world, she decided the only way to make her life feel meaningful was to "stop letting it dribble away."
Two years after the crime that ripped apart her family, Anna is no longer reckless. "I take time to make decisions that will benefit me beyond the next week, because I know what a gift my life is and how quickly it can vanish."
Anna decided the only way to make her life feel meaningful was to "stop letting it dribble away"
Stacey's priorities also shifted after loss, in a different way. She began therapy two weeks after her husband died of a brain embolism. Session after session, she kept repeating: "What were we waiting for? There were so many trips we wanted to take but kept telling ourselves even weekend getaways needed to wait until we felt more financially secure." Boxes of Kleenex were emptied as Stacey mourned lost chances: "Dan and I were so focused on working like demons for the future that we rarely sat on our porch to watch the sunset together."
After much inner work, Stacey has stopped beating herself up for what she views as mistakes. "There will always be regrets, but instead of drowning in them I want to use the energy to push me forward."
This translates to a determination to never again devalue the importance of being in her life versus waiting for it to begin on some far-off day. Stacey is taking watercolor classes just because and makes sure to get out of the city once a month to enjoy nature. "Dan and I loved being outdoors, so whenever I'm taking a hike or savoring a sunset I feel him with me."
4) Being bitter will only make things worse
If anyone had a right to stew in bitterness and fury, it was my father. Dad watched his parents and little sister march to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Yet the man who raised me was the most gentle and forgiving person I've ever met. My father once noticed a confused elderly man wandering crowded streets, brought him home, and then tracked down the man's grateful daughter. Whenever a friend of mine visited, if a parent wasn't picking her up my dad drove the girl home. My father sold household goods and clothing, and if a customer couldn't immediately pay for the merchandise, Dad issued an IOU on the spot. He told me, "Being kind no matter what other people are like helps me feel good about myself."
Over a two-year period I interviewed 66 Holocaust survivors in their homes as part of Steven Spielberg's USC Shoah Foundation: the Institute for Visual History and Education. The survivors who were happiest were the ones who had been able to release — to some degree, at least — dark feelings toward their torturers. One interviewee told me, "It doesn't mean I forget or totally forgive. But for my own well-being I don't carry inside the injustice of what was done to me."
5) You can't outrun your grief
Within six months after the death of his wife, Lenny had taken a trip to Europe, run his first half-marathon, and accepted a demanding promotion at work.
He came to therapy after "totally losing it" during a meditation class at a corporate retreat. Lenny admitted, "It was the first time since Pam's heart attack that I was still for 10 minutes, other than sleeping, and everything inside me collapsed."
I frequently tell patients, "When you stuff all the junk you don't want to look at into a closet, eventually the door will spring open and piles of crap will fall on your head."
Trauma demands acknowledgement and respect. The best coping tool is to sit with the pain.
Lenny had literally crossed the ocean and worn out several pairs of running shoes to escape his grief, but he could not maintain that grueling pace forever. When he finally succumbed to a moment of reflection, the sorrow, gathering force during the long dormancy, could no longer be denied. As my patient came to learn, trauma demands acknowledgement and respect. The best coping tool is to sit with the pain, rather than run and pretend you are fine.
Lenny spent many sessions lost in wrenching heartache, convinced the grief, once unleashed, would be never-ending. But a truth of life is that no emotion lasts forever — not the joyous ones you ache to hold onto, nor the blackness. Wait long enough, and the inner scenery will change.
Now that he's stopped running, Lenny finds his life is on an even keel. "It's such a relief to be able to feel sad when I need to, and know that afterward I'll be able to meet a friend for dinner and have some genuine laughs."
6) You learn to let go of petty grievances
Kara came to therapy after her estranged best friend died. She collapsed on my couch and wept, "I hadn't talked to Sue for nine months before she passed. Sometimes she was so self-absorbed I would get pissed. But I never mentioned it." Sighing, Kara admitted, "My solution was after 10 years of sisterhood to stop taking her calls."
My patient always assumed one day she'd reunite with her friend. Then it became too late. Kara said, "Sue never told me she was diagnosed with cancer. Then her husband left a message with details for her funeral."
This blow sent Kara into a spiral of angst and self-loathing. "Why couldn't I appreciate all her wonderful qualities — her sweetness, her humor, her loyalty — instead of focusing on the one thing that bugged me?"
Kara's grief was twofold. Not only had she lost someone she loved; she'd lost valuable time the two could have shared. "I will never again expect someone I love to be perfect."
What has given Kara solace is becoming deeply involved in the lives of Sue's children. "I take them shopping, they tell me their secrets, and I give them advice. I won't abandon them."
It isn't possible to overcome or fix things after a loss. You won't revert to being the person you were before the tragedy. But that is not a bad thing. Living with the knowledge that everything is tenuous and the only thing over which you have control is your own reactions is a gift. It offers an opportunity to create a richer, more meaningful life.
Sherry Amatenstein is a couples therapist in New York City, as well as the author of three books on relationships.