Did you ever watch a child build a block tower that you just knew was about to collapse? You understood that if you move the green block a bit out and the blue one a bit to the left, it will balance but, otherwise, another block or two and the whole structure will come tumbling down. There in the edifice of chessed known as the Ezer Mizion building, ‘blocks’ are adjusted every day as staff members do their utmost to keep the family structure intact when a crisis hits. Rabbi Chananya Chollak, International Chairman of Ezer Mizion, and his key staff discuss the type of problems they deal with.
Let me tell you about a case we had a few years ago. A Down’s Syndrome child was born to a family and I was summoned to give the family encouragement. When I got to the house, I found both parents languishing in bed, in total depression.
Hearing for the first time that such a child was born to the family are moments of deep shock that shake up the equilibrium of all the family members. The response is very similar to that of an aveil, a mourner – denial, guilt, the feeling that nobody understands, isolation, panic, anger, hope, and tension.
Marital harmony may be seriously compromised. The parents may suffer heavy guilt. Until the family finds its direction, there is a great deal of confusion and all the family members suffer on a daily basis. ‘Direction’- that is the key word.
This is the moment when we, as therapy providers are put to the test – what ‘crutches’ should we give the family at these stages in order to strengthen them.
Mental health can be even more devastating to a family. There is no clear diagnosis, no clear prognosis and the stigma is unbearable. In addition, the natural sympathy for a physically ill person is missing. In its stead is often anger, frustration, shame. Take the boy I was recently dealing with. He used to love going to shul with his father. Now he refuses. Who can blame him? There in shul, in front of the whole tzibbur, including his own friends and classmates, his father will suddenly begin to shout nonsense. Another example is the shidduch-aged young lady who would scream at her father: You ruined any chance I had for a decent shidduch! It’s our job to provide these children with coping skills, both internal and external.
There is an important sentence that must be re-iterated: Mental illness is not the result of environmental deprivation or of anybody’s failure. Frequently, we encounter different kinds of accusations – such as the case of the bachur, where the mother says the illness was prompted by the father’s conduct with the boy and the father claims it’s the mother’s fault. A fierce rip was almost made in the family, and baruch Hashem, we managed to repair the tear and to put the problem in its rightful place.
Both physical and mental illness need support. We often receive calls from schools as to how to relate to a child whose parent is ill or what to tell their classmates. It’s sad when people are prevented from being that essential support due to their own fears. One rebbe refrained from visiting his cancer-stricken student for two months because he did not know how to deal with it. Another girl with cancer had no visitors other than her family since her friends were afraid. We procured a wig for the girl and then offered to accompany a small group of friends on the first visit, guiding them all the way.
Guidance, direction, understanding, these, in addition to practical assistance, are the tools we provide to hold the family unit together as they meet life’s challenges.
Ezer Mizion provides services to over 660,000 of Israel’s population annually in addition to its Bone Marrow Registry which saves the lives of Jewish cancer patients the world over.