Responding to Spiritual Questions and Emotional Needs after Tragedies

Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, L.C.S.W.

Following tragedies, especially those that are manmade, 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 others 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, such questions – when posed by adults – might be heard as:

  • “How could this have happened?”
  • “Does anyone care enough to protect me and those whom I love?”
  • “What did I do to deserve this?”
  • “How can this terrible and unfair thing have happened?”
  • “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?”
  • “Are there bad guys everywhere?”
  • “Is the world a scarier place than I thought?”
  • “Is anyone in charge?”

The Role of Religion in Comforting Those Affected by Tragedy

For most of us, in the immediate moment of tragedy, the question is only partly theological. Rather, the care we desperately need is that which human beings can offer to one another.

This is not to suggest that pastoral counseling and religious questions aren’t important or should not be addressed in the days to come. Some people may change their own beliefs because of the trauma they’ve experienced – but however tenuous or tentative a person’s belief in God may be, the moment of serious loss and fear is not the right time to toss aside all possibility of belief in a loving, compassionate presence.

How We Can Help

We needn’t try to convince these individuals of anything, challenge their doubts and disappointments, or add our own negative conviction to theirs. If we hear them saying that life and the world seem devoid of love, order, and meaning, then agreeing or disagreeing isn’t the issue. Rather, the issue is how the world feels to them right now – and thus, anything we can do on the side of life, calm, and meaning will be most valuable.

The kindest response we can offer is one of listening; conveying acceptance; and helping restore a sense of 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 have to convey all that in words. Instead, it can be in hugs offered, compassionate care provided, and accompaniment through agonizing tasks such as funeral preparations and the gentle and timely restoration of routine. We try to provide 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 sometimes occur.

This great goodness is expressed in such activities as caretaking, rescuing, and rebuilding, and it can be understood by some as a sign of God in the world.

When Children Have Questions

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 believe, particularly if it is strengthening and reassuring.

As adults, we needn’t profess beliefs we don’t have, but we can be respectful of our kids’ hopes – even when our own faith and beliefs are shaken.

We can remind children about the ways religion and God can inspire 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 (and is consistent with their family's practice and belief) is what counts. Young children may not be able to conceive that someone who was once here is now not somewhere (this is difficult enough for adults); most older children can conceive of people living on within our hearts or of souls returning to God.

It’s essential that we listen to children’s questions before we compose our answers, as 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 suffering.

At moments of traumatic crisis, children’s faith and trust in the people they have counted on to protect them may be more significantly shaken than their religious faith. Anything adults can do to restore their sense that the people around them are working to restore safety will matter most. They 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.

Find additional resources for helping children cope with tragedies.