The Secret to Healing after Grief
By Miriam Arond
Sherry Birnbaum, Assistant Executive Director of Jewish Programs at Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS), will be retiring on July 1st after 39 years of working at the agency. Gillian Rittmaster, LCSW, Director of WJCS Health and Healing Services, has been appointed to the position.
Birnbaum’s legacy at WJCS is monumental. Under her leadership, Jewish Programs expanded to include Partners in Caring and Partners in Schools, which provide on-site counseling and support programs to 40+ synagogues, day schools, Jewish community centers, nursery schools, and geriatric centers in Westchester. She launched the WJCS Addressing Alzheimer’s program, which offers support for caregivers and individuals with early-stage dementia, and community educational programs about Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Under her supervision, WJCS conducts support groups for Holocaust Survivors and their children, social, cultural, and spiritual programming for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and numerous other programs, which serve people of all ages in the wider Jewish community.
Birnbaum, who started her career at WJCS as a volunteer and then a mental health clinician, has special expertise in helping people cope with bereavement. She led WJCS’s efforts to help those suffering traumatic loss after September 11th, Hurricane Sandy, the pandemic, the shocking death of a Westchester rabbi and his wife in a house fire, and the loss of an entire young family in a plane accident. Seemingly countless clients and former clients have shared how helpful and instrumental Birnbaum’s support was in getting through the most difficult challenges of their lives.
Given Birnbaum’s stellar reputation as a bereavement specialist, I asked her what the secret is to helping people deal with grief. Here’s her response:
“It’s focusing on the source of pain–asking people to describe the person who died, what kind of relationship they had, what that person meant to them, and how that person made them feel. You try to get to the underlying feelings that the person is struggling with now,” she explained. “It may be that the person is scared of being alone or feels like a ‘nobody’ without having their partner around.”
“Often, there are a lot of unresolved issues,” she continued. “People often say, ‘I never did enough,’ and can’t give up that feeling of guilt. People who never expressed their love to their loved one worry that the person who died never knew how much they were cared for. There are some family caregivers who, no longer able to tolerate watching their parent or spouse suffer, had hoped for that relative’s death but then feel guilty for having had that thought. The luckiest people,” Birnbaum noted, “are those who felt they did everything they could. They miss the person who died but can rest knowing they helped that person in every way they could.”
While exploring the source of pain is key to dealing with grief, this can’t be expected to happen immediately after a loss. An unexpected trauma, like the death of a loved one due to an accident, evokes raw feelings of mourning that are tough to process. “Survivors are often in a state of shock. Their sense of safety in the world may be shattered,” Birnbaum explained. “But, with time, understanding what is at the core of prolonged grief, and being able to talk about it allows you to focus on steps to move forward and heal.”
If you or someone you know has experienced a loss, go to https://www.wjcs.com/services/jewish-programs/bereavement-services/ to learn about bereavement programs at WJCS or contact Giullian Rittmaster, LCSW at firstname.lastname@example.org; (914) 761-0600 x2142.