How to cope with and manage your devastating grief and trauma.
We grieve once more as a country with the senseless mounting loss of life. Another school shooting where students and teachers perished. This trauma is jarring and profoundly devastating.
Through my continual trauma work and while doing crisis intervention with the American Red Cross after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School with families who lost children, it’s been reinforced for me that even being at the same place at the same time, that each person’s experience and perception of the situation is unique and distinct. Our biology, adaptive coping skills, past experiences, level of social and emotional support, and many other factors impact the ability to cope and heal following a tragedy.
To put this into perspective, I recall meeting with a Sandy Hook family who shared an experience about attending a support group for grieving families. Even though well-intentioned, they experienced it as being retraumatizing, while other families found it helpful and supportive. This couple was put off and distressed by the anger and rage they confronted by some of the other families. They explained that they were still in a state of shock and needed calm, warmth, and to feel grounded and secure. This unhelpful experience “shook” them up and further made them feel isolated, invalidated, and lost.
To the Families, Survivors and Bystanders:
Your Potential Reactions
It’s hard to predict what your reaction to your experience may be and what if any stress reaction may get evoked. Sometimes with overwhelming or frightening experiences, people disassociate. You may have felt like you were in a dream or altered state, as if you were detached from your body. Some people refer to it as an “out of body experience.” As if the experience is happening to someone else. This can cause you to lose memories or a sense of the experience.
You may also feel irritable, sad, angry, anxious, shameful, regretful, helpless, or some other uncomfortable feelings. You may feel strong, empowered and driven. You may weave in and out of these feelings at different points in time or gravitate toward one feeling over the others. Depending on what you were directly exposed to and how this event personally affected you, may impact on how you feel. If you lost a loved one, you may be going through the stages of grief. All people experience this differently. There are no right or wrong ways to feel.
Your perceptions regarding how you see yourself, others, and the world at large may be altered. You may question your feelings and wonder will I ever “feel safe again”, “stop crying”, “start crying”, or “feel normal.”
You may feel encouraged, and at other times discouraged. You may question whether you’ll ever feel hopeful and happy again, and whether you’ll ever feel in control. You may question who and what is deserving of your trust and feel “scared” or “damaged” because this happened to you.
You may wonder if you’ll be able to cope and if you could ever relate to the average person again. You may find yourself getting impatient, frustrated, or angry over others reacting to “unimportant”, “petty”, and “inconsequential” things. You may also find yourself feeling lost or confused in your relationships and find yourself judging others general reactions. Thoughts such as “do they know what I have been through, why are they bothering me with this?” or “why do they have to get so upset by ___, is that’s what’s really important in life?” may surface.
You may become easily startled and feel a heightened sense of worry and fear. You may also experience flashbacks of the incident. Distressing incidences from your past may also resurface. Your mind may continually replay what recently happened with thoughts about there being a different conclusion, what you could have done differently at the time, and what you wish was different for those around you.
Through pains or sensations, your body may be expressing how you’re feeling, whether you are verbally expressing it or not. If and when you’re ready, adults may want to read The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, parents and kids 4-8 may want to read A Terrible Thing Happened: A Story for Children Who Have Witnessed Violence or Trauma and Breathe Like a Bear: 30 Mindful Moments for Kids to Feel Calm and Focused Anytime, Anywhere, or parents and kids 6-11 may want to read Healing Days: A Guide For Kids Who Have Experienced Trauma. These books explain why your body reacts to stress and distress following a traumatic incident(s), and what you can do to heal your mind and body. Know that all these thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations vary from person to person and are natural and typical, considering all that you have just been through.
Being in the Public Eye
The general public is hoping for and looking for your bravery and unwavering resilience. You may feel that you can’t let the public down or that you must be courageous for loved ones. You may be fearful that you’ll be a burden and don’t want others to worry about you or have to take care of you. Because of this, you may continue being brave and carrying on, even if at times you don’t feel like it.
Societally happiness, courage, and perseverance are revered. We are taught to avoid, distract, and modify our negative or uncomfortable feelings or mood states because then we’re perceived as “weak” or “flawed.” You may feel an internal pull to be strong because it feels good or you may worry that if you’re not strong, something terrible will happen and you may “fall apart” or “lose it.”
You deserve safety and security, and to go about your daily life feeling reassured. You don’t always have to be strong. You can and are entitled to have vulnerable moments and to feel sad and dismayed during it all. Your humanness dictates that all thoughts and feelings are welcomed and there’s a place and space for them all.
What makes this situation distinct is that you’re going through and processing the tragedy and/or loss in public. Typically, this is done in private, with respect for privacy. It may be destabilizing at times, especially when someone or something is imposing, criticizing, or accusatory toward you.
Some people may overtly overstep their boundaries. They may approach you when you don’t want to be approached at all (at the supermarket, at a sports event, etc.) or approach you in a way you don’t want to be approached (reach out to hug you, randomly text you, etc.). Some may want you to share details of your experiences and feelings with them irrespective of the emotional connection and level of comfort you share with them.
Whatever the case, you have the right for privacy, quiet time to reflect and process, and to set boundaries with others who may be making you feel uncomfortable by their actions and behaviors. Boundary setting and asking directly for what you need is inclusive with friends and loved ones as well.
Because of the closeness you share with friends and loved ones, you may feel more indebted to be compliant or be concerned about angering or hurting their feelings if you assert yourself. Be aware that your needs may change often, or there may be times that you’re not quite sure what it is that you specifically need or want. Most family and friends want to be helpful. By sharing with them, or letting them know where you’re at, they can be supportive in the way that you need them to be. It’s helpful for everyone.
Take time to heal at your own pace. Recognize when you need help and when you’re not able to manage things on your own. There are signs and symptoms such as difficulty sleeping or disruption in your daily activities that will indicate to you that you may need extra help. There are effective treatments that help with coping and healing. Even if you’re not perfectly sure if you need help, you could go for a consultation and get evaluated. There are referral sources that can assist you in finding the right fit with a practitioner.
You might be inclined to ignore, avoid, push away, or repress thoughts and feelings that come up because they scare you, are uncomfortable, or wish and hope they’ll lessen or disappear over time. They typically do but it’s usually only temporarily. At some point in time, they may creep up with intensity, and sometimes when you least expect it to.
There’s great power in being with your authentic emotions, even though you may have the propensity to avoid and disengage with your negative emotions. Take this on when you’re willing and ready to. There’s no prescribed way you should be thinking and feeling. Everyone experiences things differently. Considering all that’s going on for you, your thoughts and feelings may shift from moment to moment. That’s typical and okay. Allow yourself to be wherever you’re at.
Notice if you compare and quantify your experiences with the experiences of others. What’s of primary importance is how this personally affected you. Neither you nor others deserved what happened. It’s a tragedy that’s hard for anyone to comprehend.
Helen Keller expressed, “What we have once enjoyed deeply we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes part of us.” The memories you cherish and love you gave and received is infinite. It will always be with you and remain in your heart, now and forever.
Blog as published in Psychology Today.