Originally published in December 2012.
Recently, we all watched in horror yet again as one individual took the lives of far, far too many others. It’s hard for any of us to comprehend something so big and so awful. Our brains are wired to manage things like math exams and driving in the rain and deciding which city we should live in, not for trying to untangle and categorize a web of information that makes no logical sense.
For those personally impacted by today’s events, I sadly have no words. Not because I have nothing to say, but because my small and limited language has left me ill-equipped to speak on something that I simply cannot fathom. My heart is bursting with sorrow, and it is all I can do to send hopes and prayers and wishes to people I will both never meet, and never forget.
As I write this, I realize that these public tragedies are always so different, and yet have such similar impacts on me and the people I come into contact with. School shootings, natural disasters, terrorist attacks. They all share a common thread of leaving us stunned, enraged, and adrift in something larger than we can possibly grasp.We all seem so so deeply sad, and also so unable to adequately voice the feelings we are left with. In our attempt to make sense of something senseless, we watch tv, we read the online updates, we look at photos over and over and over again that had no business being made public in the first place.
We do this in hopes of finding some solace. And yet none of this makes us feel one bit better.
In recent years, I’ve been very mindful of monitoring my news intake and emotions following public tragedies. Today, I caved, and went online for a few moments to find out what happened. I found exactly what I was expecting: horrible facts, disturbing possibilities. Then I found a photo that knocked the breath out of me. A photo of a young woman weeping, screaming in a visceral and raw way. She held a cell phone, and the byline said she was waiting to hear if her sister had been a victim. She stood next to a row of cars. She was alone. I doubt she knew or cared that photographers were hovering nearby.
I was immediately taken back to a time, quite a few years ago, when I saw a similar photo of another young woman, a friend of mine. There has been a similar tragedy, and she was also weeping, also shattered. She had just learned that her brother was indeed a victim. I imagine that was the worst moment of her life. And photographers made this immensely private moment horribly, horribly public. It was obscene then, and it is obscene still to take individual tragedy and turn it into media sensation. Seeing both of these photos left me feeling sick, and far worse off emotionally than before I had seen them.
We cannot control public tragedies, or what the media shares in their aftermath. We cannot control how others around us may react to the events. We can control when and how much we personally take in, how we spend our time, and how we try to find balance in confusing and frightening days.
I am not a therapist, a counselor, or a psychologist. I am neither an expert in public tragedy nor a trained responder to traumatic events. I am a human. I am a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife. I am a woman who has lost loved ones and been there for friends when they have lost loved ones of their own. By nature of my age, I have lived to learn of more public tragedies than I care to count.
At this particular moment, I am just one person, looking for a way to find and convey some semblance of calm while standing in a storm of unimaginable things.
I have no answers for what has happened today, or for how any one person should try to move through such an unexplainable series of events. What I can offer are a few suggestions of how I personally work my way through days and weeks like these. You may find yourself inclined to try one or more of these things, or you may find them to be ill-suited for you personally. My hope is that in reading the list, you will at least consider some ways you may wish to help yourself and your loved ones as you try to find your way back towards a less scary and sorrow-filled place.
- Put yourself on an immediate “news diet.” Make a conscious and implementable plan about your news intake. That may mean allowing yourself to check in briefly with the news once every two hours. Or perhaps you’ll decide that giving yourself one solid hour, and then no other news for the day is a better fit. Regardless of your specific decision, make a plan and commit to sticking to it. Let friends and family know, so they are able to respect and support your choice. Take note of how you feel after checking in with the news. If you find you feel worse than before you checked in, more reason to limit your news intake. Tragedy is not, and should not be a spectator sport.
- Do something kind. It doesn’t matter what you do, but make a point to do something good or kind today, and each day as the crisis continues to unfold. Let someone ahead of you in traffic, leave a few extra dollars for your waitress, take your dog (and yourself) on an extra long walk. I’m betting you’ll feel better after doing something kind for someone else. There’s something inherently therapeutic about acts of kindness, which can help you to balance out the negative emotions you may find yourself inundated with in times of publicized sorrow.
- Refrain from posting “news” of the events on facebook, twitter, etc. If you feel inclined to post about your feelings of sadness, your wishes for impacted families, or your thoughts on tragedy in general, that may be something to consider. But posting updates about the tragedy itself will likely not help you or others. The specifics are often irrelevant, since the facts remain the same: Something terrible happened. Innocent individuals were injured or killed. There will never, ever be any bit of information or any new development that will make any of this make sense.
- Reach out to those you love, and tell them you love them. It sounds a little clichéd, I know, but have you ever felt anything other than good after sharing your feelings of love or friendship with people in your life? It’s an easy way to both offer support, and feel support yourself.
- Ask for help if you need help. If the news of tragedy has left you feeling overwhelmed with grief, sadness, fear, or any other emotion, please seek immediate support. If you need a shoulder to cry on, call a friend or family member. If you feel that you are in crisis, call 1-800-273-8255 or go immediately to your local emergency room.
- If you have children in your life, be mindful of what they may be seeing and hearing. Again, I am not a therapist, but it is always a good idea to ask your children what they are feeling, and how you can help them to process those feelings. They may have created some “truths” in their minds that are not accurate or helpful for them to be holding. Ask them what they have learned. If you have any concerns about how to support your child through tragic events, you should reach out to school or grief counselors, therapists, or other local support services.
- Physically do something to help. This doesn’t mean you have to fly to the impacted areas. This means choosing to devote time, energy, or money to a cause that is close to your heart. You can volunteer at a homeless shelter, send money (even a few dollars) to an organization that speaks to you, or help to clean up litter at an underfunded playground or park. When you immerse yourself in something that is helping those in need, you may feel a sense of connection to people everywhere who are helping where help is needed. It’s a good feeling, and again, that can help to balance out some of the negative feelings.
The truth is this: We cannot, through any good deed, positive thought or thoughtfully-worded blog post change what happened today. We cannot go back in time and prevent tragedy. We cannot still the hands of those who perpetrate violence.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that we can or should pretend that nothing has happened. What we can do is change the way we decide to personally move through times like these. We can make a choice to surround ourselves with positive thoughts and individuals rather than repetitive and horrifying images and news stories. We can make a choice to help our children digest and understand what has happened in a way that is appropriate for their age. We can decide to do lots and lots and lots of tiny positive things in hopes of helping to counter-balance the few large and terrible things that will happen in this world. We can decide to focus our time and energy towards creating a small bit of healing in a time of large sorrow.
Really, that’s the most any of us can hope to do in a time like this – find or create a small piece of healing. In my opinion, it’s a pretty good goal to work towards.
If you have other positive suggestions for coping during times of tragedy, please add them in the comments section below. You may find that offering support to others can help you to find your own sense of healing.