Responding to tragedy, trauma & loss

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With the horrific tragedy that occurred in Paris, I didn’t feel right posting my regular blog. I imagined how I would feel if my loved one had experienced this tragedy and my heart is consumed with pain and sadness when I think about the pain that people are going through. Of course, this is not even comparable to those who are experiencing real loss. I wanted to provide some helpful guidance, but with a real depth of empathy and sensitivity. It is hard to know  how to respond to the horror of such a tragedy, trauma and loss. And this will apply not only to those who are affected by a tragedy of this scale, but also those who are impacted by loss in their lives.

I hope that I can help those who want to respond in a helpful way to loved ones who are experiencing such devastation.

I wrote a blog recently about how to respond to those we love when they are in pain. However, this is a bit different. This pain is mixed with extreme trauma. I think most people feel lost, overwhelmed and frightened about how to respond to someone who has experienced such a tragedy. I saw someone write in response, “no words”. It’s okay not to have words. Sometimes people stay away because they don’t know what to say or do. It’s okay to feel lost. Your loving presence is what is important. You can let them know that “we will get through this together.”

You can bring a calm presence. Be with the person, cry with them, this is a show of empathy, support and compassion. You may fall apart with them. However, try in some way to reassure them that you can handle their very strong emotions. It is important that you be aware of what you can and cannot do in a tragic situation and it is not wrong for you to not be able to handle these very strong emotions. But, a person who is going through trauma and loss may worry that their pain is a burden to others. Reassure them.

When someone experiences trauma, the most important thing is for him or her to feel that they are safe. Reassuring them that they are safe is not enough. Ask them what they need to feel safe or at least, as safe as possible. Asking them provides them with some semblance of control and voice. You can offer suggestions, such as, would you like me to stay with you, check the locks on the doors and windows. Whatever it is, if possible, do it for the person. Even if it sounds illogical, it is what they need. I had a woman take her jewelry with her everywhere after her husband died. Her family thought she was losing her mind. It turns out that she had experienced (years back) her home being burglarized. After her husband passed, she felt unsafe and she simply could not tolerate the thought of one more loss, even if it was a material loss (her jewelry).

Someone who survived this horrific tragedy wrote “Futures demolished, families heartbroken in an instant.” Know that reactions from everyone will vary. Feelings of outrage, brokenness, being lost, devastation, terror, sadness, anger, heartbreak, helplessness, so many different feelings and many of these feelings will be felt at the same time. Their pain will never ‘go away’, they can only hope to manage it – but they will always have access to feeling their pain. I say this because we tend to want people to feel and experience their pain, and then hope that is goes away. This is understandable; I would never want someone who I love to carry this heavy burden. Even the thought of someone who I love carrying such a burden brings tears to my eyes.

Another thought, we tend to rush in and support but as time goes on, so do we. I had someone share with me that, for her, the second year of grieving was harder than the first. During the first year, she told herself “I will get through this”, she grieved, she cried, she fell apart and she was resolved to get through it. The second year, her strength diminished. Her loss became even more real. She knew that she would feel sadness in some part of her for the rest of her life. People grew weary of her pain. She grew weary of her pain. However, as she moved through her grief over the years, she was able to manage it better. She needed to feel heard, and understood. She needed empathy, validation and compassion. Grief doesn’t have a timeline. And everyone’s timeline will be different.

The survivor also wrote, “cries of grown men who held their girlfriends dead bodies pierced the small music venue.” Men have an instinct to protect. If their loved one has died and they survived, they will feel, among many things, that they failed to protect. You will want to tell them “there was nothing you could do” which is true. However, if you say this, they may feel that you don’t understand. You might let them know that you recognize how important protecting was to them. And how horrible it is for them to experience an unimaginable tragedy and wanting to protect is understandable. Survivors will have different reactions. Some will feel guilt; questioning, “why did I survive?” and others might want to act. Accept different reactions even if you don’t understand them. 

One last thought, being with someone who is going through this is unimaginably hard. It will evoke many feelings for you. Take care of yourself. In doing so, you will be able to better support your loved one. 

I send peace, heartfelt love, and compassion to all who have endured such horror. My heart is with you as are many, many other hearts. Years later, you may think that everyone has forgotten and moved on with their lives. But know that I will think of you. I still think about the families from Sandy Hook, Columbine, 9/11 and many more. I think about families all over the world who endure so much pain and loss. It is my hope that all of us come together with love and compassion for others.

Photo Credit: Anil Kumar@flicker.com

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Responding to tragedy, trauma & loss
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Responding to tragedy, trauma & loss
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With the horrific tragedy that occurred in Paris, I wanted to provide some helpful guidance in responding to tragedy, trauma and loss.
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