In the Aftermath of a Tragedy
It might seem counter intuitive, but the easiest time for those struck by tragedy can be in the immediate aftermath. Environmentally or socially, communities rally around those affected with an outpouring of support and resources. Psychologically, overwhelming circumstances are met with numbing and shutdown in the individuals affected, like an in-built pain killing mechanism. However, just as with medication, it wears off. It is in this readjustment period that the brunt of the tragedy is understood, and the scope of the losses internalized. Weeks after the Covenant School shooting in Nashville, TN, the national news coverage has all but disappeared and the tragedy faded into obscurity except for those local stories covering the ceremonies surrounding the school’s reopening.
This article is to serve as a resource for students, parents, teachers, administrators, first responders, and communities who witnessed or are directly affected by the murders. My hope is that I can shed light on the signs and symptoms that often follow crisis and how you or those you love can move toward healing and wholeness after tragic loss. Below are experiences commonly reported after a crisis and ways to effectively cope divided into helpful responses for students, adults, and supporters.
Students affected may notice physical symptoms, such as feeling tired or worn down, headaches or stomach aches, a fast heartbeat, feeling jumpy, or problems sleeping. You may have thoughts that what happened is somehow your fault, images of the bad thing repeatedly popping into your head, nightmares, or worries that what happened will happen again. There may be changes in your behavior, like not wanting to be around people (especially family or friends), getting into fights, or having difficulty concentrating or getting schoolwork done. You may not want to talk about, think about, or have any feelings about the bad things that happened or even be around things that remind you of it. You may also feel that you are not able to have fun as before. You may also notice that these things are more apparent when you are reminded of what happened by places, people, sights, sounds, smells, or feelings related to the event.
When you are affected by a crisis, you may make things worse by avoiding fun activities, fighting, avoiding thoughts about the event, avoiding family and friends, using alcohol or drugs, engaging in other risky behavior, and not asking for help when you notice the signs and symptoms mentioned above.
It may be helpful to take time to talk with family and friends. Engaging in fun activities with people who care about you can also be an effective way of engaging with others if you do not feel like talking. Making sure to eat well, getting enough sleep, and remaining physically active are all important and getting back to a regular schedule can be very helpful in reestablishing these good habits. Spending time outside (especially in nature), listening to music, or keeping a journal are excellent ways to spend time alone as well. In addition, as you reenter usual routines, allotting yourself extra time to complete assignments and accepting that you may need additional help (if only for a short time) is okay. Finally, if you find that you are struggling with anything discussed, being willing to ask for support is the absolute best thing to do.
Everything pertaining to students above is applicable to parents as individuals personally struggling with crisis. If you are struggling in the aftermath of a crisis as a parent, it is important that you engage with your own support system. A spouse or partner, trusted family member, friend, clergy, or counselor are all viable options. While it is okay to show emotion with your children, it is important that you are their safe space, not the other way around. As any parent knows, children are observant. After a crisis, they may closely watch a parent’s responses and recovery, not wanting to disturb a parent with their own worries. Reiterate that their concerns or emotions are not a burden to you and that even if it looks like you are struggling, they can bring their concerns forward. If you feel unequipped or overwhelmed, it is also okay to seek help on your child’s behalf if you notice the signs that he or she is struggling.
In the aftermath of a crisis, parents may notice that their school age child exhibits confusion about what happened, retells the event, or plays in a way that reenacts the event over and over. They may be overly fixated on the safety of themselves or those close to them. In addition, taking note of sleeping difficulty, including insistence that they not be left alone, waking up afraid or frequent bad dreams, may indicate that your child is struggling after a trauma. You may also notice behavioral changes ranging from restlessness, aggression or becoming more accident prone to acting out sexually or using alcohol or drugs. Other behavioral and attitudinal changes may include pulling away from parents, family, or peers or a premature entrance into adulthood like a desire to move out, leave school, or get married (especially in adolescents or teenagers).
These mark a few of the possible concerns that may arise, and the linked documents below detail many helpful interventions that you can employ in different cases. It is also recommended that you engage your own support system to seek advice. Short term family counseling can also be helpful to equip you with communication, conflict resolution, and parenting skills and resources as well as facilitating the most difficult conversations around the crisis.
FOR THOSE OFFERING SOCIAL SUPPORT
For those on the outside wondering how you may help someone in your family, church, or community, there are also considerations before extending a hand. First and foremost is that you should be in a healthy place mentally and emotionally with positive coping mechanisms to stress already established. In the aftermath of a tragedy, engaging with victims may expose you to stories of what happened that WILL affect you. Hearing these accounts can bring up similar effects in the listener as those who experienced the crisis firsthand.
There are many reasons why people do not reach out or even avoid help. In the aftermath of a crisis, it may be difficult to recognize or articulate what they needed or what would be helpful. The experience of trauma often leaves victims feeling helpless and the vulnerability necessary to accept help can sometimes illicit that fear of the loss of control. The fear of appearing weak or being embarrassed by needing help can also keep victims from seeking or accepting help. This fear of weakness can be reinforced by doubts that the help being offered will be effective or previous experiences of asking for help and feeling that it was not there or was insufficient. The avoidance may also simply be a function of a desire to not think or talk about the event for fear that it will be too much to face head on.
Before discussing what may be helpful, it is important to know what does not work. Rushing to reassure victims that they will be okay can often feel dismissive. Similarly, pointing out silver linings, acting as if the victim is exaggerating or weak, giving advice without listening to concerns or learning what works first all interfere with the intent to give support. It is also important to remember that offering support is not the time for you to discuss personal experiences without first listening to the other’s story.
To help, simply showing interest and attention can overcome resistance to seeking help. Offering to talk in times and places where you will not be interrupted (and offering this as many times as needed) can reestablish a sense of security. Acknowledge that traumatic stress can take time to resolve, help brainstorm positive ways to deal with their reactions, and show respect for their ways of coping while expressing your belief that the person is capable of recovery. Because compassion fatigue is much more likely when offering this kind of assistance alone, enlist your social circle so that others are also taking part in supporting the person. Eventually, encourage victims to speak with others in the context of a support group or individual counseling if you feel the social support is not enough, especially if signs and symptoms interfere with normal functioning for a month or more.
For additional resources or information, check the links below or visit the SAMHSA (samhsa.gov) or National Child Traumatic Stress Network (nctsn.org) websites.
Written by Joshua F. Medeiros, LPC-MHSP(Temp.)
This article is based on the following resources available from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network & National Center for PTSD, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, US Department of Health and Human Services.
Psychological First Aid for Schools (PFA-S) Field Operations Guide
Psychological First Aid Appendix E