How to Heal After Life's Most Challenging Moments
A psychologist and Holocaust survivor provides insights about developing inner resources.
Edith Eger is an award-winning and best-selling author, Holocaust survivor and psychologist who has worked with veterans, military personnel and victims of physical and mental trauma. She spoke with Jessica Abo to discuss her book The Gift and how we can heal from life’s most challenging experiences.
Doctor Eger, I'm so happy to see you. You have inspired thousands of people to confront their challenges — and make the choice to heal. I want to start our conversation today by acknowledging that you endured so much suffering during the Holocaust. Can you share how you remained hopeful through it all?
Edith Eger: In Auschwitz, four o'clock in the morning, I didn't know what was waiting for us when we took a shower. We did not know whether water or gas was going to come out. How do you find hope in hopelessness? It's your attitude, the way you think about everything. Why not to cover garlic with chocolate and not to minimize what is happening. What you suffer will make you much stronger, I assure you.
Your first book The Choice came out in 2017. It's your personal account of surviving the Holocaust with wisdom about overcoming grief, guilt, anger and shame. After reading it, Oprah Winfrey said, “I will be forever changed by Dr. Eger’s story.” What made you want to write this book?
Eger: The people who survived and are famous are all men. You need a female voice. So, The Choice became the female voice of Viktor Frankl. Then people would say, “You're not done at all. We need the how-to book. We need a more practical book.” So that's how, The Gift was chosen.
I consider it my duty to celebrate one of the most beautiful gifts of God, the gift of memory. I am so grateful that I can tell people what happened when people are in the darkest places. And yet, the book has to do a great deal of the lessons that I have learned, what happens when good people do bad things. And how can you revolve or evolve in life.
Your book provides a hands-on guide to help people discover their inner resources so they not only survive, but also to heal from life’s most challenging experiences. How can we do this? How can we heal from life’s most challenging experiences?
Eger: Recognize that anger is not a dirty word. It's how you channel it. And there are also a lot of other emotions under the anger. I am very selective about who's going to get my anger. Because when you're angry, you're giving your power away. You allow other people to interrupt your peace of mind. So if you are against something, you're going to really have a very different response than when you are for something.
When I was liberated, I became very suicidal. My parents were not coming back. My back was broken and I was in a cast. I knew that a good, loving God told me that if I am going to die, I'm a coward. It's easier to die than to live. But if I'm going to be for something, I'm going to be totally dedicated. You cannot heal what you don't grieve and feel. So grieving is about the journey. It's a journey of grieving, feeling and healing. You cannot heal what you don't feel. So it's OK to cry because then you feel better. What comes out of your body will never make you ill. What stays in there does.
I know that at the end of each chapter, you have activities for the reader to participate in. Can you give us an example of one of those exercises?
Eger: It's very good to write your feelings down. It's very good for you to keep a journal. And every night you may say something, I wanted to do such and such, and then I ended up doing so-and-so and now I feel... Acknowledge your feelings. There is no letting go until you go through the rage. Not to cover garlic with chocolate, not to really run from it, not to deny it. These are the defense mechanisms that we use. Deny it or delusion. But most of all what we do, we minimize. Oh, it wasn't such a big thing. No. No. No. You've got to really grieve.
When I arrived in Auschwitz, I was told that I'm going to see my mother very soon. She's just going to take a shower. And then I asked the kapo, “When will I see my mother?” And she pointed at the chimney and said, “Your mother is burning dead. You better talk about her in past tense.” And my sister hugged me and she said, “The spirit never dies.”
That's how I entered Auschwitz. And then my sister and I were completely shaven. And my sister looked at me and said, “How do I look?” It's a Hungarian woman's question. And I had a choice then as you have a choice now. I had a choice to point out to her, how she really looks. And yet, I realized I became her mirror. And I said to her, “Magda, you have beautiful eyes. And I didn't tell you that when you had your hair all over the place.” So the gift is about finding something good in the darkness. My loving God guided me to change hatred into pity. I decided that they were the prisoners, not me.
Even though I was told I'd never going to get out of there alive, I said, “If I survive today, then tomorrow I'll be free.” That's how I was able to dance for Dr. Mengele when he came to the barracks. When I finished, he gave me a piece of bread. Instead of gobbling up the bread, I shared it with my girls. I was on the top bunk. Later on, in April, 1945, when I was in a death march and I was about to stop, and when you stopped, you were shot right away, the girls that I shared the bread with, they came and they carried me. They formed a chair with their arms so I wouldn't die. Isn't that amazing? That the worst brings out the best in us. I always look for the light. And see, the more I suffered, the stronger I'd become.