“Give me my doll!”


“It’s mine, it’s mine!”

I grabbed for the doll and scratched at her; she pushed me“Stop crying! I’m going to count up to three” over and ran off laughing. I retired, hurt, under the red-topped formica table in our breakfast room. Mummy was doing her weekly baking: cupcakes, mandelbrot (biscotti), gingerbread, but even that glorious baking smell couldn’t soothe my damaged pride.

“Stop crying! I’m going to count up to three.”

I knew that no-nonsense voice, and so reduced my sobs to a snuffle and sniff. But I promised myself: When I grow up, I’m going to let my children cry when they need to.

Other people’s crying and pain . . . have you ever noticed how we often run away from it? Look what we say about it: Don’t be a cry baby; pull yourself together; no use crying over spilled milk; put a brave face on it. We offer a cup of tea or a tasty morsel to dry up another’s tears, as if that could help.

We run away from deep sorrow; after the shiva (the seven days of mourning for a close relative who has passed away), few people come round to see how the newly bereaved person is managing now she has to get back to real life. And how many visitors do you see around the bed or in the home of a mother who just gave birth to a newborn with Down syndrome?

Many of us don’t do well with pain—not physical, not emotional, not in others, not in ourselves. Is it right that there should be almost a taboo against expressing misery in public? Should those weighed down by sorrow have an obligation to hide that fact, and feel guilty and even more sorrowful if they fail? Are we right to insist on quotas of acceptability for misery: two minutes for a child’s grazed knee, a week or two over a lost job, a few months perhaps for a lost loved one?

No matter how restrained and well-disciplined we are, long-held pain can sometimes catch us unawares. Then, our tear ducts will pour forth like white-hot lava bursting from a crater. Sometimes, an unacknowledged pain hits us between the eyes. Sometimes, without a tear being shed, our pain can fill our surroundings with a touchable heaviness and a hearable silence. If we observe such pain in others, we may feel like running away, or perhaps we’ll offer a conveniently placed piece of chocolate (sweet things make it all better, don’t they?).

Stories abound about great rabbis who, when told tragic stories, cry with the victims and join them with quiet statements like “That’s a tragedy.” An expression of pain is not always a cry for a fix-it. It is an ouch—a response to the fact that a value, an expectation from “new toys shouldn’t break” to “people shouldn’t behave that way” has been trampled. Sit quietly with the one who is hurting; join with an “I’m so sorry that happened to you”; tentatively place tissues within reach. Just be there.

Very early one morning, I was called to do shmira (“guarding” that is done for aI held her close, and we cried together recently deceased person) for a dear friend until the chevra kadisha’s (those responsible for Jewish burials) transportation arrived. Outside, all was still. I ran quickly to relieve another friend, Sara, who had been with the body since she had died. Sara was waiting outside the house.

“They’ve taken her already. I was with her all night. I was there when it happened.”

I held Sara very close, and we cried together. When she was ready, I walked her to her house and stayed until she was able to decide what to do next.

Another time, I was waiting outside a gynecologist’s office in the late afternoon. It was just me and another lady who looked quite close to giving birth, sitting on hard chairs in a sterile white corridor facing a closed door. I overheard the conversation she was having. It sounded as if the fetus she was carrying hadn’t made it, and she was waiting to hear what she should do next. When she put the phone down, I sat next to her, proffering a tissue. There was nothing I could say, but I could try to show that she was not alone, that someone cared.

Very often, people react to expressions of pain and sorrow by trying to fix it. They stand outside the pain and attempt to show how unhelpful the misery reaction is. They may give good reasons why the cause of the pain isn’t so bad. “This will help you deal with anything you might have to face.”

In Ethics of the Fathers (ch. 4:23), it is written: “Don’t try to comfort the mourner when his dead is in front of him.” Commentators write that the mourner will not be comforted. In fact, you will damage him because he will feel that you don’t understand his pain, and he will be even more unhappy. The Midrash Shmuel explains that all the mourner wants at this time is that his friends should be sad with him. In fact, there is a custom not to go to a shiva house on the first days after the funeral unless you are very close to the mourner, as the pain is too raw to accept comfort from visitors.

Most people who’ve had a toothache found their tongue irresistibly drawn to touching the tender area, hurting themselves again and again. It’s no wonder then that people in pain tend to do the same thing, and tell their story over and over again. It’s very tempting to cross over the road when you see Woe Is Me in the distance. We are often embarrassed and bored by such encounters, and we really don’t have the time to waste. The truth is, such telling and retelling may wellTelling and retelling may help a person’s pain help the person in pain; every bit of acceptance and caring is a balm to troubled souls.

You don’t need to be a therapist to be able to sit quietly with a person in pain and just be there. You don’t need to be a long-term friend to genuinely express regret that a fellow human being had a painful experience.

The ability to feel pain shows that we are alive, but it hurts. Often, that hurt cannot be fixed. Yet having someone hear about the hurt helps to get through another day and another one until . . . until, with the help of the Almighty, life is bearable again.