Recent events have caused the entire nation to attempt to make sense of the losses sustained in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico; and now, in a different way, Las Vegas. Despite these disasters taking place over a thousand miles away from Vermont, our community struggles with the cumulative trauma from tragedies that are difficult to make sense of.
The psychological effects of these tragedies, whether created by humans or by nature, are the same. While a large span of miles leaves us less directly affected by these events, we may still be triggered by the images we see on television and the internet. And many of us may find ourselves reliving our own experience of traumatic events.
Tragic events shatter our belief systems. Our natural response to the shocking or frightening events we experience vicariously is to attempt to make sense of them. We may sort our feelings into categories: “This is the result of global warming;” “That is what happens when gun laws are too loose;” “The government is doing nothing (or everything) that it can.”
Sorting helps put our experiences of painful situations into a context we can use to help make sense of what we perceive as utterly senseless. It can also create a dynamic where others become the object of our blame, which further de-stabilizes our connection to community.
As we attempt to make meaning of what may seem meaningless, it is critical that we care for ourselves and others in our community who may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of trauma—or easy targets of blame. Tragedy can act as a community equalizer; trauma affects all of us, and we all grieve together over the loss of life, property, and livelihood.
The National Center for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) suggests that two core actions provide psychological first aid to communities experiencing high levels of stress: engage in contact with individuals who may be most affected, and provide ourselves and others with people, places, and things that provide us comfort.
Taking these two steps helps those of us affected by tragic events begin to return to a sense of normalcy. Community dialogue and events in which we can share our grief and fear together can help rebuild our faith in others and prepare us for those times when we will again face tragedy.
Kirk J. Woodring, LICSW, is the Chief Clinical Officer at the Brattleboro Retreat.