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What to Do in the Wake of Tragedy

Mother comforting adult daughter

The bombings at the Boston Marathon, like so many other senseless acts of brutality, have grabbed the nation’s attention. Again, we watched our televisions in horror as people ran screaming and crying from the unthinkable. Again, we watched, with deep admiration, those who ran toward the explosion to help in any way they could. Again, we watched people carry one another to safety. Again, we watched people searching frantically for their loved ones. This life-shattering and other-worldly scene has become all too common—Columbine, 9/11, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek, Newtown, and now Boston. Each of these tragedies is unique, but the scenes of the aftermath are eerily similar and leave us feeling scared, exposed, vulnerable, and totally out of control.

So what should we do in the wake of such inexplicable tragedies? Should we keep calm and carry on, as the Brits encouraged during World War II, or should we allow ourselves to be changed? The answer likely will vary from person to person. So try to sit with your response to this tragedy for a moment and see what rises to the surface; it might help you choose your next move.

For many, there is a visceral need to connect with loved ones. Maybe it is out respect for those who can no longer connect with their loved ones. Maybe it results from the realization that you never know when you are having a final conversation with a loved one. Maybe it is simply because you tend to seek comfort in your relationships. Whatever the reason, if this comes up for you, do it. Call family and friends near and far and let them know that you love them and value the relationship you have with them. Spend time with family and friends that live near you and, if possible, plan trips to visit those who don’t live so close. Be freer with hugs and I-love-yous.

Atrocities of this magnitude often create perspective-taking moments for people. You may find yourself questioning a grudge you’ve been holding against a friend or colleague; is it really worth it? You might decide to leave work a little earlier than usual so you can make your child’s school play; what’s really more important? Maybe that fancy new car you’ve had your eye on seems less necessary; is there a better use for that money? If you find yourself wrestling with these kinds of questions in the coming days and weeks, wrestle with them. Don’t be so quick to push them aside; they’re there for a reason. Stay with them and take a moment to consider what really and truly matters to you and act accordingly.

For some, clinging to loved ones and refocusing on what is truly important is simply not enough. There are some who feel compelled to create greater change in the world. The Newtown families’ activism for gun control legislation is an example of this. Many charities and foundations were created by and for the 9/11 families and first responders. And it is common for memorial scholarships to be set up in victims’ names. Survivors who pour love, hope, righteous anger, and tireless efforts into these initiatives are driven by a deep-seated need for the tragedy to not be in vain. If you find yourself feeling a need to create something good from this unspeakable event, look for a way to initiate or get involved in something along these lines.

No doubt there will be some people who suffer from acute stress (symptoms last no longer than four weeks) or posttraumatic stress (symptoms persist for more than one month) as a result of this event. If you are experiencing flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, feelings of jumpiness, numbness, loss of interest in things you usually enjoy, difficulty concentrating, loss of memory, or other such symptoms, you should seek out the assistance of a mental health professional. You don’t have to struggle alone and you don’t have to struggle forever. There is help and there is hope.

© Copyright 2013 by Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC, therapist in Brooklyn, NY. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • m.henriques April 18th, 2013 at 12:42 PM #1

    a tragedy can change the way we think. it happened to me when my friend lost his parents in a road accident a few years ago. what if it was my parents? I could never have seen them again, I could never have told them I love you again. While I was deeply sorry for what happened to my friend I was thankful it was not my parents.

    We should use such times to assess what’s really important in our life. For it is in the times of trouble that we truly realize what is more important and what isn’t.

  • Brayden April 19th, 2013 at 3:51 AM #2

    It is funny how somethin g so tragic really does make you stop and think for a moment and makes you reevaluate all of the anger and dislike that you may have been carrying around with you.

    Things like this could happen in an instance, with no time at all to make things right. I wouldn’t want to think that I had lost someone so important to me without ever having the chance to apologize or say I love you.

    Life is simply too short to go through it with anger and rage against another.

  • Joslin April 19th, 2013 at 8:46 AM #3

    I am currently out of the country with my job and will be for the next six months. As much as I love the good ‘ol USofA, it is interesting to take a step back and see what is happening to our country. Actually, let me rephrase that. It is interesting to see what Americans are doing to themselves. Where in the world is our sense of patriotism? It appears as if we are our own worst enemies. Those in other places who wish to do us harm need not bother. It looks as if we are going to self-destruct. Atlantis, here we come.

  • Garrie April 19th, 2013 at 8:48 AM #4

    All time favorite response is the exact same one that circulate after Sandy Hook: the words Mr. Rogers shared that his mom told him when he was younger: when things are scary, look for the helpers.

  • tamela April 19th, 2013 at 8:50 AM #5

    what is wrong with people why do they have so much hate in there heart for people they don’t even know. i just don’t even understand it and i don’t know what to tell my boy who is scared cuz of what all the kids at school tell him. they all talked about it all week and. so now he is so scared. i told him the best thing he can do. is to be the one who changes how people see the world. and to do as much good as can every day but. i know that’s not gonna be enuf. we live in a messed up world.

  • Jedro April 19th, 2013 at 8:51 AM #6

    Yep, things like this sure do put everything else in perspective. I just hope we can stay the land of the free and the home of the brave and don’t end up on crazy lock down all the time.

  • Candace April 19th, 2013 at 9:31 AM #7

    Thanks for reminding us that we may need some professional help after something like this. Even if it doesn’t happen to us directly, we may still need counseling.

  • Levi Ng'anjo April 19th, 2013 at 10:03 PM #8

    Hie good parent,
    Reading your advice to your child has really shown to me how much you love your child. Indeed, in such terrifying times like Boston has experienced it traumatises the developing mind of a child and yet we as parents may have little influence on changing our children’s perception to what is generally shared among peers. However, your now and again assurance of what has be done by your child to correct the situation is much encouraged. In times, commiting your child to one’s spiritual understanding would do much better than just mental assurance. We are not of ourselves but there is a spiritual being that gives confidence to our being. I would encourage you to point your child to God in Jesus name if you have not already done that. I am in Malawi _ Africa and I pray that God may intervene in your situation and curb all such evil in Jesus name. Amen.

  • Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC April 25th, 2013 at 10:05 PM #9

    Thank you all so much for sharing your thoughts. It seems that I was not alone in shifting my focus to what really matters most to me in the aftermath. @Garrie, I love that Mr. Rogers quote too!

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