In the wake of a tragic event, it’s not uncommon to feel the effects in the days and weeks that follow. Whether your experience is divorce, unemployment, illness, loss of a loved one, or other family separation, people often experience sadness and disruption for several weeks or even months, and ultimately return to normal functioning over time.
But what happens when tragedy seems too much to bear? The recent suicides of two students who survived the Parkland, Florida school shootings, followed by the apparent suicide of a father whose child died in the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, shed light on the crippling impact of acute trauma to those left behind.
Survivors who lost loved ones in tragedy experience a range of symptoms and associated stressors, often including a phenomenon known as “survivor’s guilt.” Survivor’s guilt may look differently for different people, but typically results in feelings of guilt and despair about having survived (while also suffering this tragedy), difficulty coping, recurrent thoughts (known as rumination) about the incident, replaying events, wondering what they could have done differently and other challenging symptoms.
Some survivors also go on to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which occurs as a long-term reaction to a traumatic event, and includes symptoms such as invasive thoughts and/or memories about the event, hopelessness, nightmares, lack of enjoyment of usual activities and more.
So what we can we do? How do we help our community members and loved ones impacted by tragedy?
Keep the conversations going. Talk, talk, talk and talk some more. Check in on your loved ones, and create a space that makes them feel like they can confide in you. This can be difficult to do if you feel uncomfortable having these discussions, and honesty and authenticity are important. Don’t be afraid to tell your loved one you are worried, or even name the conversation as uncomfortable. For example, “this feels a little awkward for me, but I’m really worried about you. I’ve noticed you’re spending a lot more time alone and I was hoping we could talk about how you’re doing.” Name what you see – this tells them you’re paying attention and you care. Then invite them to let you in.
Identify positive coping skills and utilize them. Maybe you or your loved one loves to hike. Or maybe it’s a walk at lunchtime, journaling, crafting, a book club, or some other preferred activity. It’s important to stay connected to healthy behaviors, or coping skills, that make us feel good, even when we don’t want to. Go with your loved one to their favorite club, or take a walk with them. Depression can become a self-perpetuating cycle; you don’t feel like doing anything because you’re depressed, and then you’re not doing anything healthy and your isolation makes you more depressed, and so on. Help a loved one avoid that trap – keep some positive behaviors and routines in their days.
Know when to seek help. I would go as far as to say that everyone who experiences a major tragedy or trauma should get connected to a good mental health provider. Even if they don’t feel like they need that right away, they’ll appreciate that connection in the future. Take advantage of the safe, supportive space that a skilled therapist can provide. A therapist is your personal safe space and can help survivors move through the weeks, months, or even years that follow. A therapist can also recommend a psychiatric evaluation for medication management if needed, as well as recommendations to optional support groups.
Watch for signs of a crisis. If you’re loved one is reporting thoughts of harming themselves or others, or expresses thoughts about not being around anymore, seek immediate help. Other warning signs can include (but are not limited to) increased isolation, sudden changes in behavior, giving away belongings, hopelessness and loss of interest in daily life. If you think your loved one is at risk, don’t be afraid to call your local crisis hotline, call 911, or drive them to an emergency room. The idea of an emergency mental health evaluation can be scary, but rest assured that you will be met with caring and compassionate clinicians who can help.
Katie Adams, LISCW, is the Director of Mental Health Services at Harrington HealthCare. She currently oversees lifespan mental health and therapy services in south central Massachusetts northeastern Connecticut.