Sometimes there are jokes about how we’re all emotionally damaged to some degree. It’s a serious problem for us, because we all lived through wars and terror attacks,” shared Canadian-Israeli Yolanda Papini Pollock of Winnipeg Friends of Israel (WFI) at a lecture co-hosted by WFI on Feb. 9.
The discussion, which focused on the topic The Psychological Impact of War and Terrorism: Coping with and Minimizing Trauma, was held with the local Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev chapter, the Jewish Post and News and Congregation Temple Shalom, at the synagogue.
“I’ve worked with refugees for the last decade,” said Michel Strain of the Manitoba Immigrant and Refugee Settlement Sector Association. “All have come from countries affected by war and many have experienced trauma and torture, many living in refugee situations for many years.
“In my role in the employment program I worked in, I was often one of the first people the refugees began to trust. And, during this trusting relationship, I had the privilege of many individuals sharing their stories with me…. Their resiliency was resoundingly evident to me.”
Holocaust survivor Edith Kimelman spoke about dealing with her personal trauma. She was 16 years old when Germany invaded her small community in Poland.
“I stood at a neighbor’s window and watched my father being led away by soldiers, only to find him later in a field – dead and riddled with bullets,” she said. “It was beyond my young comprehension to understand that no one in our non-Jewish community of neighbors would help us bring him home. My childish belief was, once he returns to our house, he would return to life.
“To watch from our window, as Jewish neighbors were led behind a stable, shot and quickly buried gives me, to this day, nightmares. To find my mother so severely beaten that it led to her death will haunt me forever. I felt like I was punished, having to remain alive without her.
“When I had my own children, I lived in constant fear that something terrible would happen to them or to my husband, and that I would be unable to help them.”
Kimelman explained how this trauma has affected every aspect of her life, including, of course, her relationships with family and friends. While she fears she will leave her sons with the heavy baggage of her unfortunate experiences, she is confident that her fierce love for life and her survival will carry them through.
The keynote speaker of the event, BGU’s Dr. Solly Dreman, who was born and raised in Winnipeg before moving to Israel 50 years ago, was introduced by Dr. Will Fleisher, a local therapist experienced in working with traumatized youth and adults. Dreman is professor emeritus in BGU’s department of psychology.
Dreman has witnessed the long-lasting effects of terrorism. Decades later, “soldiers are having night terrors, night sweats, family difficulties, are unable to cope.”
He differentiated between war and terrorism, explaining that war is usually preceded by prior events and circumstances, while terrorism occurs suddenly, without warning, causing a different type of trauma. Unlike war, terrorism is not confined to a specific geographic arena or time dimension.
“The threat persists, the fears, uncertainty, the sense of helplessness,” he said. “Such attacks are looming over our heads all the time. You have the unbridled devils lurking in your soul forever. That’s going to serve as the trigger for anxiety, feelings of helplessness and inability to cope.
“People who have lost loved ones may have been witness to the event, and we all know the symptoms of survivor guilt,” he continued. “By escaping unscathed, they experience feelings of guilt that they came out alive. There’s research that shows that people who have been injured in a terrorism event after having lost a family member have less PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] than someone who comes out unscathed. Survivor guilt has been a major factor.”
Dreman pointed to the media as an aggravator in Israel, saying they continually expose the public to the horrific events, while frequently providing information that is unreliable and unconfirmed. He also said the general public, too, is responsible for watching, reading and listening to these reports more critically.
He spoke about his experiences with two separate terror incidents.
“Our initial therapeutic attempts were designed to deal with interpersonal things, like helping teachers in their contact with the young victim students, helping integrate them into the school system,” said Dreman.
The approach seemed to have worked for the first few years, but when Dreman went back to these families 10 years after the initial contact, he found them struggling with life and their interpersonal relationships.
“It was terrible,” said Dreman. “We failed. By the way, we got published in a very prestigious journal reporting on our failure. The conclusion, for those of you who are dealing with refugees or faced the Holocaust, is that there is a need for interpersonal intervention and getting back to business as usual.”
Dreman suggested that limiting media exposure may be helpful, as the constant repetition of the horror does not allow people to heal. But, on the other hand, he said it is important to not go completely off the grid, as that can cause anxiety to a breaking point that might create more trauma. A balance is needed, he said.
Dreman further advised that it is important to embrace life, that social support is a major factor in healthy adjustment.
“Be up front with your kids, explaining that you will do your best to protect everyone,” he said, “but don’t promise that nothing bad will happen, as that is a promise you may not be able to keep. We should allow kids the opportunity to express their fears, but not to dwell on them, as that will exacerbate the sense of trauma.
“Routine is very important – schoolwork, exercise, empowerment,” he added. “The only way to get that is establishing a routine in the face of incomprehensible uncertainty and trauma. Don’t send the kid to a shrink because, by doing that, you’re telling them you can’t manage things.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.