Mind Matters — In the Aftermath of National Tragedy

Cardboard boxes, emptied of the ornaments they held, stay strewn around the Christmas tree as I write this: the memorabilia of forty plus years join new LED lights to mark the “season merry and bright.”

Not so. Christmas is always the push of Light against and into the Darkness. The national tragedy of the deaths of twenty children and seven adults in the Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school is a grim reminder of this.

In our collective grief, perhaps we can also have compassion for the innocent children who are killed in drone attacks in Pakistan or on the streets of Camden, Philadelphia, Chicago, Wilmington. The anonymity of these children doesn’t diminish the significance of their deaths. In all these cases, the bottom line is violence and the disregard for the pricelessness of human life.

That said, how do we face the traumatic grief on an individual and collective level?

It can help to talk to others and share feelings and experiences. Be aware of and honor the feelings that arise. Some of us may become edgy, others fatigued. Some of us find ourselves crying and feeling sad, others may feel angry or fearful. In addition to recognizing our feelings, we need to find healthy outlets for them. What works to de-stress and relax?

It does help to exercise or even to take a ten minute walk. Some people find a warm bath soothing, or writing a worry list that gets the internal chatter out of the head and onto paper.

While our human bodies are fragile and life turns to death in an instant, the human spirit is amazingly resilient. We can keep this in mind when we address the responses of our children in the wake of tragedy. Parents, caregivers, and teachers can be supportive by making sure children feel connected, cared about, and loved. We need to listen to children and allow them to express their feelings, letting them know it’s okay to have their feelings. We also can allow children to ask questions.

Mister Rogers once remarked that when he was a child his mother would note whenever there was some tragic incident to look for the helpers. We can heed this advice and point out to our children to look for the people who are performing acts of kindness and are helping. This also gives role models to children for how they can act.

Adults can help children see that they are not to blame when bad things happen. Often children may enact “magical thinking”—“I wished something, there it happened.” Do you remember, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back?”

Another way we help our kids is to not engender violent acts ourselves. While we can express our feelings, screaming and hitting or kicking walls, for example, frightens children all the more.

What is best for our children is what is best for ourselves. When we take care of our physical and emotional health, we provide role models for our children as well as providing an emotionally and physically safe environment.

As for the link between mental illness and violence, there is virtually none. The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and “people with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime.” (Washington.edu reference below.)

May we, in this season of Light against the Dark, find loving connection. For it has been said, “The beauty that will save the world is the love that shares the pain.” (Cardinal Martini)

This column used the following resources:
  • American Psychological Association
  • Save the Children
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (877)SAMHSA-7)
  • Washington University