Mind Matters — April Can Be the Cruelest Month

T.S.Eliot said that “April is the cruelest month” and certainly the Boston marathon bombings on April 15, 2013, would attest to that. But violence is not poetic and can be found in any month and in many forms. So it is that on the heels of this horrible event, I write this. We, as a nation are still reeling from the Newtown massacre (December 14, 2012) of children and teachers. Meanwhile, there are ongoing traumas that are anonymous to us, that occur every day, and those too should not be dismissed. Nevertheless, the Boston marathon’s tragic bombings that killed three people and wounded 175 victims has affected the psyche of the nation.

I have in this column addressed the issues of traumatic grief, how to build resilience, the aftermath of tragedy and so on several times. On the day after the bombings, I listen to WHYY’s Radio Times myself to glean some wisdom from the experts. One of Marty Moss-Coane’s guests was Professor Tricia Wachtendorf, who is Associate Director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.

I have heard Professor Wachtendorf speak before, at a Christiana Care Medical Reserve Corps meeting, where she discussed disaster response across the globe. I recall how articulate and evenhanded she was in her approach to a very difficult topic.

Wachtendorf reminded her radio audience that media attention affords, unfortunate and unwelcome as it may be, opportunities for discussion with our children about the traumatic event. Each developmental age carries a different set of questions and concerns. We need to meet our children where they are and respond honestly. I like to note that children are emotional barometers for our own anxiety and reactivity. If we ourselves can self soothe, calm ourselves, and can be grounded, then our children can model us and feel safe. So, first, we need to check in with ourselves and note where we are with our distress. And yes, B-r-e-a-t-h-e. Remember that the word anxiety is derived from the Latin, angere, to choke. To be choked up and not to be able to breathe is indeed anxiety.

Wachtendorf, as well as many others, reframed this most recent act of violence in terms of the helpers. I am, too often these years, reminded of what Mr. Rogers’ mother told him as a child: that when there is a traumatic event, a disaster, to look for the helpers. To be sure, many helpers were visible on Monday—not only first responders, but also anonymous people, who did not run away but ran toward the victims.

We may ask ourselves, what would we do in similar circumstances? Would we be a helper, holding someone’s hand, comforting with a hug, or carrying the injured? Innate in most of us is the call to care.

Responding to Moss-Coane’s question, “Is this terrorism?”, Wachtendorf replied that it is best to focus on what happened, on what is more relevant in terms of a criminal investigation, even while there is a sense of fear and uncertainty.

Words are weighty: they carry heavy burdens of connotation beyond their slim denotations. Any act of violence is an act of terror, no matter what country, group, or individual is the perpetrator. Likewise, as Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And may justice overcome the violence of this tragedy.

[There follows a listing of helpful resources for coping with disaster. These have been compiled by the American Psychological Association.]