Somewhere in my news feed I saw a clip of our nation’s elected leader in Houston, telling the media and hard-hit flood victims, “Have a good time everybody.” It reminded me of the moment when, in the throes of the worst tragedy ever to hit my beloved hometown of New York, our mayor encouraged us to “go shopping.”
Leaders may believe that encouraging people to make light or turn away from tragedy calms them, but I know the opposite to be true: nothing is worse for bringing on systemic Post-Traumatic Stress than denial.
As I see devastating images of flooding in Houston and South Asia, I am filled with stories and images of other natural disasters; of terrorism and acts of violence that ripped into communities, families, innocent bystanders and even marathon runners; stories of horrific fires and sudden financial ruin; stories of personal and collective trauma, and the humanity and despair these events stir up. And I wonder: As so many of them are happening so fast, are we really taking the time we need to digest these experiences, individually and collectively?
There’s lots of advice out there on how to deal with trauma and loss, but I feel compelled, after my own experiences and helping many others, to share a few insights of my own in case there’s anyone that could benefit from them.
1. Let yourself be flooded. When flood waters are destroying the possessions of your life, the best medicine is to let yourself be flooded in turn: not only by the love and generosity of friends and complete strangers, but also and especially by emotions that surface or even come out of left field — and they will, again and again. In letting yourself be awash in the emotional responses that erupt, true restoration of self can happen. When we are physically hurt, we wash the wound to keep it clean to prevent infection and let the healing happen. Our emotional responses to trauma function in the same way – they are cleansing, and ensure thorough healing.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but when people allow aspects of themselves to shatter in response to horrific experiences, they lessen the risk of becoming fragmented and calcified in ways that cause more permanent anxiety, depression and addiction down the road. Making space for the heartbreak paves the way for acquiring the true strength that comes from recovery (more on that in a bit).
2. Give Yourself Even More Time. To really follow the previous suggestion, you need to make time and space. The shock of the initial event can create a heightened, emergency state that, despite horrible losses, is purposeful and may feel energizing. It propels you into the creative action necessary to get through. There is also a large outpouring of love, attention and assistance right after the event. This can fool you into thinking your emotional response is over. It’s also tempting to think that once the initial shock of the event wears off, and your home or daily routine is reestablished, you will get back to “normal life.”
The most challenging phase of traumatic event recovery usually occurs weeks or months after the initial phase, when the media and everyone who wasn’t affected by the trauma moves on, and you are still picking up the pieces. Give yourself the time you need to mourn and recover. Time heals all wounds may sound like an overused cliche, but as long as you are actively involved in healing, it is also really true. The farther away you get from the event, the less you will be defined by it. Elizabeth Kubhler-Ross’ five stages of grief— although they don’t always happen in a linear fashion – can be useful as a benchmark: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
3. Prepare for unpleasant truths and unexpected losses. There is the stuff that needs to be reconstructed, and then there are losses, such as people and animals, that insurance can’t replace. And then there are other losses to prepare for that are not a direct, physical result of the initial traumatic event. For example, close relationships with people who are also going through the event in their own ways may be stressed due to different styles of grieving. You may lose friends who cannot understand, or who abandon or deeply disappoint you during your recovery process. And the sad truth is, people behave at their worst when under duress, or when a large sum of money is on the table. You may see sides of loved ones you didn’t know existed.
4. Gentleness and tenderness are your strongest allies. These are the forces to cling to when the going gets rough. And when you cannot find them within yourself, or your loved ones, seek an environment – like a recovery group or spiritual community – in which you can. There will be days when the heaviness of your heart outweighs all the items on your to-do list, and all of the expectations you have for yourself, and others have of you. It’s okay. Sometimes it’s just about letting the days and seasons pass. Gentleness from within and without will serve as a necessary soothing balm through the rougher passages.
5. True confidence comes from true recovery. If you can lose everything and rebuild, which you will, then you have something that no one can take away from you: The knowledge that you can survive the unimaginable. And then something unshakeable develops within. And you actually become less, not more, afraid of life.
If you resonate with this advice and know someone who could benefit, please pass it on.