Coping with Trauma — 28 November 2003
How can we cope – 9/11/01

We are stunned, shocked, dismayed, watching with sheer horror the sights on the television screen of destruction devastation and decimation of life. The crumbling of the towers, planes colliding with structures, attacks on the Pentagon, lives lost in unaccounted numbers.

How could such atrocities befall us? How could such evil deeds be conceived and executed, even by the sickest mind? It is indeed incomprehensible.

When tragedies of nature occur, such as earthquakes, floods, fires, hurricanes or tornadoes we seem to be better equipped to accept the forces of nature as part of life. We unite, support each other, grieve, rebuild and attempt to resume normalcy as early as possible.
But when horrific acts of violence and destruction are initiated by humankind, we are less able to comprehend it and recover from the devastating losses.

We search for logic to quell the surge of overwhelming pain. If we could only understand why and how such events could happen, maybe we could find some solace. If we could reason the causes and motives, the rationale for any of it, perhaps we could ease the agony. No one to date has been able to explain why did some good people have to endure atrocities inflicted by others.

We look then to justice. Isn’t the world supposed to be run by principles of fairness, kindness and morality? If so, how come so many good, wholesome, exceptional human beings are killed, maimed or destined to grieve for the loss of their loved ones forever? How is it that innocent children lose their lives by the cruelty of some adults? Why are evil acts inflicted on innocent victims?
The emotional imbalance we feel when answers elude us is enough to make us feel despondent.

A few answers are available to us. We know that vicious, cruel behavior is often perpetrated by hateful people. When the hate is very intense, the capacity for empathy is lost, the victim is reduced to an inanimate object, and all conduct towards him is thus justified. People, who view both themselves and others as worthless, attempt to use evil power to regain their sense of potency.

These acts are often associated with seriously skewed beliefs. A local murderer, who picked up hitch -hikers, killed them and spread their limbs throughout the county, claimed that his victims “wanted to die this way”. Suicide bombers believe that they are perpetrating acts of holiness and will be rewarded handsomely in the after life. As unfathomable as these beliefs are to us, they are real to those who hold them. The combination of deep-seated, dehumanizing hate with a sense of heroic status, empowerment and rewards -breed the capacity for monstrous acts.

We also know that decent, caring, healthy human beings are ill equipped to be consoled by the explanations about the impaired mind. As much as we yearn for answers they are unhelpful in healing us. We can only understand that which we are capable of, therefore hideous mass destruction and murder is incomprehensible to us.

  • What can we do with our feelings of compassion for the suffering of others, the pain for their losses, and the helplessness we experience? How do we cope with these intense emotions and continue to function normally?
  • We need to congregate with others and share our feelings.
  • We must speak about our pain repeatedly.
  • We may want to participate in memorials, prayers and communal ceremonies, which strengthen our connections to each other and make us feel supported.
  • We need to express emotions as they flow: crying, laughing, anger, fear, etc.
  • We may need to ask to be physically consoled through touching and hugs.
  • Taking action supports healing. You may choose to donate blood, send money, help with relief efforts, write to grieving families, contact the Red Cross and find out how you can help.
  • Punctuate your thoughts of the tragedy with ordinary, daily concerns.
  • Avoid excessive viewing of the traumatic scenes on television.
  • Spend some quiet time paying attention to your inner thoughts and feelings.
  • Accept that grieving is a process, not an event. Allow yourself all the time you need for the resumption of emotional balance.
  • Be aware that as intolerable as your feelings may be now, they will ease with time.

Suggestions for parents:

Explain to your children that a terrible accident has happened. Phrase it in an age appropriate language. Reassure your kids that they are safe at home and in school. Kids do not need to be told about “bad people”, since that often makes them extremely fearful and vulnerable. Spare your young children from the sights on television, as much as possible. Listen to the news in their absence. Children benefit from a secure parent who can reassure them calmly. If you are devastated, give yourself the space to experience your pain and regain composure away from the children. Keep the children’s routine as usual as possible. If your kids are adolescents ask them for their reactions and listen empathically. If your teen acts disinterested or aloof, respect her way of coping with this trauma in her own way. Tell him you are available anytime, if he wants to talk about it. If kids ask questions you can not answer, be honest and tell them you don’t know .Accept any explanation that seems to be soothing to them.

Accepting that each individual, young or old, deals with grief in the best possible way for him, allows us to be loving toward each other at the most difficult of times.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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