There are different types of silence. There is the silence that comes from a lack of words. There is a silence that comes from holding back what shouldn’t be said. And then there is a silence of connection, of identification. And that is a silence that speaks louder than any words can. It is created not by unspoken syllables and sounds but by palpable feelings communicated through presence. The comfort that we can offer through this kind of empathic silence transcends the spoken word, coming straight from the heart.

Yehudah Avner was an Israeli diplomat who as a seventeen-year-old boy fought in Israel’s War of Independence. During the siege of Jerusalem, Avner lost two of his friends—including a girl named Esther, the sister of the woman who would later become his wife. In a private audience, Avner related this part of his life story to the Rebbe. This is how he describes the Rebbe’s response:

I always found that responses from the Rebbe were not always in words. There was a look; it could be a mesmerizing look. Anybody who has ever met the Lubavitcher Rebbe will always remember those eyes. And also there was…a certain nod…. On that occasion, he didn’t respond with words but…there was a vibrancy of understanding and compassion when I told him about the death of my wife’s sister.1

A similar account was shared by a woman named Marguerite Kozenn-Chajes, who had been a successful opera singer in Vienna in the late 1930s and performed in front of Hitler, may his name be erased, at the Salzburger Festspiele in August 1939. On the night of her performance at the festival, Marguerite was smuggled out of Austria by her friends, and she managed to embark on the last boat to the US before the war broke out just a few days later. She later settled with her family in Detroit, where she became founder and president of the Pro Mozart Society of Greater Detroit.

Years later Marguerite’s daughter grew up and married a doctor who, in 1959, was honored at the dinner of a Chabad institution. In conjunction with that occasion, Marguerite had an audience with the Rebbe.

“I walked into the Rebbe’s room,” Marguerite related, “I cannot explain why, but suddenly, for the first time since the Holocaust, I felt that I could cry. I, like so many other survivors who had lost entire families, never cried before. We knew that if we would start crying, we might never stop, and that in order to survive, we could not express our emotions. But at that moment, it was as though the dam obstructing my inner waterfall of tears was removed. I began sobbing like a baby. I shared with the Rebbe my entire story: My innocent childhood, becoming a star in Vienna, performing in front of Hitler, escaping to the US, and learning of the death of my closest kin.

“The Rebbe listened. But he not only listened with his ears. He listened with his eyes, with his heart, with his soul, and he took it all in. I shared all of my experiences, and he absorbed it all. That night, I felt like I was given a second father. I felt that the Rebbe adopted me as his daughter.”2

When we interact with people who have experienced loss, our natural response is often to try to ease their pain. But, in fact, the best way to do that is to be present in a way that allows the bereaved to express their sorrow.

My uncle, who tragically lost a young child, later wrote that many people who came to the house of mourning to make a shivah call tried to divert his attention from his grief. But he did not want to be diverted. He wanted to talk about his beloved son and share his loss with his visitors. He wanted to feel that they missed his child too. “Only such company can lessen sorrow,” he wrote. “But if people talk of other things, good as their intentions may be, the pain remains as deep as it was before they came.”3

By being open with our own emotions, by freely shedding tears alongside the mourner, we help the bereaved express their hurt so that it can be dealt with, and over time, healed.

There are numerous accounts of Holocaust survivors who came to the Rebbe seeking counsel and solace. To their surprise, instead of trying to rationalize the past or bolster them with an encouraging message, the Rebbe would gently ask them about their families. How many loved ones did they lose, what were their names, and what were they like….

The survivors would inevitably break down in tears, as would the Rebbe.

Indeed, while the Rebbe generally exhibited little emotion in public, when it came to human tragedy, he would often choke up or weep openly and profusely in middle of addressing thousands of his Chasidim. He did not try to bottle up his own grief, thus providing a powerful lesson in how to respond to the painful events in our personal lives and in our communities.