Sharing your trauma

Last week, I had an experience that taught me a great deal about dealing with trauma.  Almost by complete coincidence, I went to a neighbor’s home, where I had not yet been before, at around 11 pm.  I walked in to find a crowd of about 12 older Israeli men, none of whom I’d met before. It was a smoke-filled room, with wine and whiskey being passed freely, and everyone except for me seem seemed to know each other quite well.  

This meal was a seudat hodaya, or Thanksgiving feast, held annually in honor of one of these men, whose name I still don’t know, being saved from a dangerous situation in war.   I only caught about 40 percent of what people were saying, and I got the impression that the real story was still classified, but I my sense is that the guest of honor, a man who looked to be in his 70 or 80s, was an ex-prisoner-of-war, and another man at the table had been imprisoned with him for a number of years.  

Two guitarists–one with long payos and a beard, and the other without a kippah–were at the opposite end of the table playing soulful Jewish and Israeli songs.  The host served a festive meal featuring lamb.  A younger Rabbi-type would interject inspirational words, many of which the older gentlemen would shoot down with humor.  At one point, they even asked me, in my half-broken Hebrew, to share a thought. A few younger men were there–probably relatives of the older gentlemen who were there. 

The mood of room shifted many times–sometimes we were captivated by stories of the various wars each had fought in; other times a somber feeling came over the table as they recalled their fellow warriors  who never returned home; still other times were filled with laughter and joy.  Finally, at 1:15 am, I left the festivities and headed home–I have no idea what time they ended.  

I learned a great deal from this humbling experience.  There was a genuine sense of community, support, love, and understanding that can only be understood by being there.  These men have gathered together each year for many years, to share these experiences with each other, gain support from one another, and express their gratitude to God and to one another.  I have no doubt that at least some of these men still experience elements of post-traumatic stress; I would sometimes see flashes of it in their eyes as they were telling the stories.  And I also have no doubt that these gatherings make life the rest of the year much more meaningful.  

It is often difficult for survivors of traumatic events to trust others enough to share these experiences and seek support from a community of friends; it can be equally hard for a survivor to express gratitude in the aftermath of such an experience.  At the same time, tremendous growth can be achieved for those who can find such a trusted community, as well as find the points for which to be grateful.   I know I am grateful for this opportunity, and I hope to be invited back to participate next year!