February 24, 2024

The agony of uncertainty in moments of loss

Throughout history, uncertainty surrounding the fate of a loved one has been a source of profound agony for family members and friends. The inability to internalize the memory of the deceased, coupled with the ongoing hope for their survival, perpetuates this suffering. The waiting period for medical test results serves as a prime example of how uncertainty can be more difficult than receiving the actual news. Similarly, the uncertainty in love relationships can cause immense emotional pain.

At present, thousands of people in Israel are grappling with this exact situation. Families are unable to ascertain the fate of their loved ones, as hundreds of bodies have undergone such severe mutilation that it is impossible to determine whether they have been kidnapped or killed. Paradoxically, knowing that a loved one is deceased, as horrifying as it is, can be easier to bear than the ongoing uncertainty.

The families of those who have been abducted also experience profound uncertainty. Even if they witnessed their relatives being taken to Gaza, it remains impossible to ascertain their whereabouts or their condition. These tormenting questions haunt their thoughts.

The uncertainty surrounding the well-being of individuals such as three-year-old Abigail, whose parents were tragically murdered, is especially unbearable and inhumane. This situation creates overwhelming anxiety, which can sometimes be paralyzing.

To combat this terror, an active approach is proposed, based on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which aims to cultivate a sense of stability and provide a sense of certainty in what is still within our control. This exercise consists of grounding, engaging in activities, guided imagination, and normalizing thoughts.

While each step complements the next, in cases of extreme uncertainty and stress, the focus should be on constantly repeating the first and most important step: grounding. By asking specific questions and sifting through the sea of uncertainty, individuals can gain a better understanding of their situation and avoid accepting false information.

Dr. Nir Essar is the founder of the Psagot Institute, an expert medical director, and an instructor in cognitive behavioral therapy.