How to help you and your loved ones cope with tragedy

By Kari O\'Grady, Ph.D.

Kari O'Grady

Kari O'Grady, Ph.D.

When we are alerted to or involved in community tragedy, our world can suddenly feel unsafe and our place in it uncertain. We are often surprised by the emotional, physical and cognitive impacts that we experience as a result of the trauma event, particularly when the event takes place many miles from our own communities.

However, experiencing symptoms of distress following a community tragedy is very normal despite its proximity. This is particularly true when the trauma is intentional and strikes in a context that we have deemed safe and iconic. Such events seem to threaten the very core of our way of life.

The Boston Marathon is a symbol of vigor, endurance, aspiration, achievement—America itself. Many view the marathon, which takes place on Patriots’ Day each year, as evidence that anyone with high goals and a strong work ethic can achieve their dreams. It is no wonder that our sense of well-being was acutely disrupted when the finish line was fraught with tragedy.

To help minimize the negative psychological consequences of encountering community trauma, individuals can engage in healthy measures that have been demonstrated in the research to mitigate distress symptoms. The following tips are intended to assist you and those you love cope with the emotional and spiritual aftermath of community trauma events.

Normalize your experience: Remind yourself and those around you that experiencing psychological stress following such events is normal. It is not unusual to have a range of emotions after community trauma incidents. This emotional distress can be similar in its impact on the body as a physical injury. By normalizing your reactions, you can actually help reduce your body’s release of stress hormones, thus restoring a sense of inner calm and healthy physical and cognitive functioning.

Set boundaries on media exposure. Tuning into the event through the media can help us feel a sense of connectedness to those in the broader community; however, over-exposure to the trauma can reawaken feelings of stress. Be sensitive to your need to balance your life with other events not related to the trauma incident.

Talk to others. Receive support from others by talking about it. Discussing your feelings with those who are aware of the tragedy can be comforting and reassuring.

Help others. Find opportunities to reach out in service to others to remind you that there is a purpose to life, and that we do have control over some things such as doing good in our communities.

Take care of yourself. Community trauma events can take a toll on our physical and mental health. Establishing healthy routines, such as exercise and regular mealtimes can help reduce stress symptoms. Engaging in relaxation actives such as taking a bubble bath, lighting a scented candle, or reading a good novel can also help restore balance and lessen feelings of distress.

Draw upon your spiritual resources. Traumatic events can disrupt our spiritual worldviews. Engaging in spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, scripture study, and walking in nature can help us make meaning of the event and find solace in our connection to a higher power.

Many families also feel concern about how to help their children cope with such events. The following are suggestions for helping children cope with community trauma events.

Model calm. Children turn to adult for emotional cues about how to respond to tragic events. Communicating bout the event in a calm manner helps them feel more safe than when they perceive us as anxious.

Be honest and developmentally appropriate in your explanations. Children can sense when we are distorting the truth. This can increase their levels of stress.  Share the facts of the events with minimal embellishment and in an age-appropriate manner.

Encourage discussion. Help your child to feel safe to discuss her/his feelings. Assure your child that his/her feelings are normal and that they will subside with time. Reassure your child that they are safe.

Spend extra time playing. Play games and read to your child to help create a positive environment and to distract your child from the event.

Maintain a normal routine. Engage in the daily routines that you established prior to the event to help generate feelings of normalcy and security. Also, be flexible to allow for your child to express special needs or minor alterations to the family routine (e.g. keeping a light in the bedroom at night for a few nights).

Be affectionate. Extra affection and attention can help children feel cared for and safe. Hug or hold your child and express love. Affectionate touch and communication reduces physiological stress reactions and reminds both the child and parent that they have each other.

Engage your child in spiritual practices. Praying with your child for victims of the tragedy can help your child feel that he/she is supporting the victim. Praying for and engaging in other religious rituals on the behalf of the victims can be empowering for children as well as create a healthy sense of community.

Kari O’Grady, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of pastoral counseling for Loyola University Maryland.

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