Sunday, March 8, 2020

Helping adults cope with tragedy

There are a lot of resources on how to help children cope with tragedy (such as the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut or the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado) but not so much on helping adults.  Like children, adults are stressed, upset, angry, fearful, sad, perhaps even guilty.  But, while children aren't expected to deal logically (and analytically) with sadness, fear and grief, adults are. However, when it comes to dealing with powerful emotions, it just doesn't work that way.

A lot of times when adults try to talk about it, they'll get logical platitudes such as; "all things must pass; it'll get better with time; every dark cloud has a silver lining; when one door closes another opens; it's part of God's plan;" etc. Or, worse, "get over it; suck it up;" and more.  The problem is, those are analytical, thinking responses to an emotional feeling and, just as I discovered with people choking in competition, trying to change an emotional feeling analytically isn't very effective.

When I look at people, it's like I see a pressure cooker. When someone is having an emotional reaction to a tragedy or other stressful situation, that pressure cooker is building up steam and, just like a pressure cooker has a relief valve, they have to let off steam or they'll blow.

What happens if they blow? Back on April 20, 1999 (the day of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado), I was taking a work break and going for a short walk. As I walked around a corner adjacent to a high-rise, a man in his late 20's hit the pavement after jumping from a high floor. That's something I'll never forget. When I got back to the office, my co-workers told me about the Columbine High School massacre. I still don't think it was coincidental. I can't even imagine what emotions, I'm guessing triggered from the Columbine massacre, led that man to take his own life. But, I do know that's the power of anger, fear, sadness, pain, grief and guilt, and that was one of those pivotal moments that led me to do what I do now, helping people let go of those emotions and find peace of mind.

So, what can you do to help? You can listen, validate and avoid judgements or platitudes. What that means is, even if you disagree conceptually with what someone is saying, you acknowledge that they have the right to how they feel. You don't have to agree with them. You're just validating that they have the right to how they feel. Sometimes that's really all we want (or need). We don't want someone to logically persuade us that we really shouldn't feel the way we do, but just acknowledge as a human being we have the right to our feelings.

I believe that's one of the best ways we can help adults reduce the pressure of the negative stress inside them, especially brought on by tragedies around us.

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