When a natural disaster hits, there is anxiety, and traumatic loss but such events have a clear beginning and end. Natural disasters are devastating but there are few unknowns. With the collective loss, there is often collective care and support. In the aftermath of a hurricane that destroys and our neighbor’s home, we run to help him rebuild.
In the face of epidemics we lock our doors. Threatened by contagion, terrified by unknown risks, we move into fear-based survival mode. We isolate. We ruminate. We become saturated with media warnings and shaken by shards of frightening information and even conspiracy theories.
Whether in the past or the present, a traumatic event experienced by one or all members of a family, impacts the entire family system. Be it the violent loss of a child, the devastation from natural disaster, the injury of a combat vet or the suicide of a family member, trauma assaults the lives of all family members and the legacy they share.
How Does a Family Cope?
One of the most important things a family can do in the aftermath of a traumatic event is to find a way over the days, months and even years “to speak about what happened.”
All families engage in story telling. Around the dinner table, in car pools, at holidays, in the middle of the night, family members share the day-to-day experiences of big and small events in their lives. Through the stories they tell, families create the fabric of their life and their legacy.
Why is it Difficult for Families to Speak About Trauma?
Family Protection Through Silence and Avoidance
Given this impact of trauma, the inclination of many family members is to protect each other by not speaking about the trauma.In an effort to spare others from more pain, prevent the stirring of feelings, avoid contaminating with traumatic memories, or burdening the family with grief, both adults and children disavow history, deny feelings and often avoid connection. The myth is that “if we don’t talk about it we can live beyond it.”
Historically we know that the opposite is true. As trauma expert, Cathy Caruth says, trauma “will out” in one way or another in spite of being silenced or denied. What can’t be said must be carried and acted out.
Nationally and internationally, the most endorsed response in the early aftermath of a disaster is Psychological First Aide. Used by those responding to disasters, it is a set of guidelines that you can learn to use for yourself and others.
Just as knowing certain aspects of Medical First Aid can help you minimize injury and reduce future medical complications, knowing and using certain aspects of Psychological First Aid can help you reduce the emotional impact of a disaster and its consequences.
Here are Five Steps for Using Psychological First Aid
I. Establish Physical Safety
Families have moved in together in arrangements they never would have dreamed possible-as a way of keeping each other safe.
II. Establish Psychological Safety
The definition of catastrophe is an event causing great and often sudden damage or suffering. The early morning shooting and killing of 12 people and wounding of others as they eagerly began viewing the latest Batman movie; “The Dark Knight Rises,” tragically qualifies.
As we shockingly take stock of this horrific event, we once again dare to imagine the pain of the families or resonate with memories of having faced similar pain. In the face of traumatic loss we are left without words, helpless to understand ‘Why’ and needing to believe there is a way to prevent such events.
We have come to know that even as we can still barely catch a breath and struggle for answers, there are some initial steps of Psychological First Aid (PFA) that offer some relief.
Here are some suggestions worth knowing and owning when life has suddenly become so darkened.