Coping With Tragedy: Diverse Communities with Common Answers, On Common Ground
Noel J. Jacobs, PhD, Edmond, Oklahoma
We are a beautiful and sometimes miraculous people, and we help each other cope in ways that prove there are sometimes no strangers in time of tragedy. I spent a few days helping with the Red Cross after the first round of tornadoes hit. We will talk about tragedy and coping, but I tell you without hesitating: Oklahomans earn their reputation as a strong people. Here are a few things I saw:
The two first responders who staffed my Red Cross van (which we affectionately call ERVs) will be friends of mine forever now. They arrived in Oklahoma City the morning after the first tornadoes, and only left a week later when was injured in the line of duty. One is an Oklahoman who has since moved away, but both now travel the country helping after disasters. They give their lives, with little pay, to help others wherever and whenever it is needed most. Mike and Dan and I drove with food, water, and basic first aid assistance into Bethel Acres, near Shawnee, and saw total devastation. We were the first Red Cross responders there, but we found a local company, Practical Shooting, whose owner lived one neighborhood over, had set up two tents where employees and family just worked making food and handing it out around the clock. All of the families in Bethel Acres were thankful for us coming, too, but nobody in the neighborhood was hungry. I also saw other evidence of what great people we have:
Malik Zia Shahid, working at a gas station in Shawnee, gave my Red Cross van (affectionately called an ERV) all the ice we needed without charge, and when I said thank you, he just shook my hand, smiled, shrugged and said “I’m just doing what I should.”
Later, I spoke with four families who only asked for help replacing medicines and medical equipment for their children that they had lost when their homes were destroyed; I found a local clinic had already set up a way for them to get these quickly. All within a day of the first tornadoes.
About 24 hours after the first round of tornadoes I spent time at a church whose Sunday school classrooms were so full of supplies they had dedicated an entire room to just one type of need. There was a room just for toiletries. I saw an entire room of packaged meals that heated themselves. Houses of many different faiths, all over the affected areas, became so full they had to gently ask people not to give any more supplies.
Our hearts – they are big, and they seek to help partly because helping is coping. However, as great a response as this is, many individuals in our community, as in any community after a tragedy, are suffering. Many are suffering silently; many are feeling alone even in the crowd. To understand this better, to get a glimpse of how someone is coping, it is helpful to think about the questions that he or she might ask:
First, some questions younger children might ask:
What are we going to do?
Where will we stay?
What about my pets?
Where is my stuffed animal?
What about my friends?
Will my stuffed animals be hurt? Are they scared too?
Where did that person go when she died?
And also, they might ask ‘Why did this happen? Will it happen again?
Now, imagine what they are thinking and feeling, and what they need at those moments to cope. Next, imagine the questions that adults might be asking (and notice the similarities):
What are we going to do?
Where will we stay?
What about my pets?
How can I get my child’s stuffed animal back?
What about my friends?
Does anyone else feel the way I do?
What happens when we die?
Why did this happen? Will it happen again?
How do I move forward and feel safe about the future?
Coping is related, often, to whether those questions are answered, and how they are answered. Answering these questions may or may not be enough at all times for the people we see. We must understand, too, that some questions will have no answers.
After a traumatic event like a disaster, the NIH estimates that 6% to 33% will develop an acute stress disorder that significantly impacts functioning within the first month. A smaller percentage here may go on to show chronic problems related to the events that we call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The majority of us will eventually recover with no long-term problems. However, our children and our elderly are most vulnerable to negative impact, both physically and psychologically. Those who have felt personal loss, especially lives of loved ones, are at greatest risk of difficulty generally. And those with past traumatic experiences, or pre-existing mood or psychological problems are at great risk as well. We see amazing resilience in many, but some have a very difficult time recovering. Some difficulties faced by those hardest hit include:
Sleeping problems and nightmares, and change in appetite
Anxiety, panic at times, and depression
Feeling that things are not real around them, or they are not really ‘in control’ of themselves
Irritability, aggression, or withdrawal and Isolation
Behavior resembling a stupor, hyper-alertness and hyper-vigilance
Active avoidance of memories related to the trauma, or ‘lost’ memory of moments, occurring without a medical cause
If you know of people struggling like this, there are people trained in terrific programs like Psychological First Aid, used by our state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and they provide service at low cost or completely free to people affected by our most recent tragedies.
So, back to the whole community: What does everybody generally need? Think back to the questions they often ask. They need physical help, help cleaning up and finding shelter, food, and safety. They need to find a sense of current safety and to achieve a more permanent and ‘normal’ living arrangement, to get back to a daily routine. Importantly, they need to have knowledge of someone close by when they feel troubled, and someone paying sensitive attention to issues of suffering that may come up later.
How can the whole community help? First, we have to understand the multiple and intertwined communities in which we live our lives. Our communities are our relationships that matter most. They are the groups to which we feel comfortable saying we ‘belong.’ They can be our blocks, and our neighborhoods, our sections and suburbs, our businesses and organizations, and the people with whom we relax and spend our free time. They are the agencies that serve large groups, like our medical and mental health communities. And they include our centers of faith and culture.
Related to culture and faith in our community, there is some evidence people more strongly and positively attached to a cohesive culture and/or faith community do better, but only if we understand culture and faith broadly (people of no faith , agnostic or atheist, fare equally well when they feel connected to a culture and to others). People who feel understood and affirmed in the midst of their difficulties tend to do better. Many, regardless of faith, will be grasping to find meaning in the tragedy, and need supportive members of their chosen communities to listen and talk to them.
Then, within those communities and individually, we can help each other. We can be present, quietly, with those affected:
We can check on them and listen to them
We can let them tell us their needs
We can join them in acts of recovery
We can connect them with other resources to help them find a ‘new normal’
As communities, we can work to very hard avoid conflicts in reaching agreements about the best ways to help.
That last way of helping is important. An attitude of respect goes a long way in promoting future positive feelings and openness between our smaller, diverse communities, and helps join them more
deeply to the larger community. When we know each other individually, deeply, and personally, our differences can be respected, even celebrated, and do not have to divide us.
You may ask yourself, ‘What can I do right now?’ Whether or not you have been personally affected, you can reach up to your own source of faith. You can reach out to your neighbors and their families. Reach down to your children (or better yet, sit down on the ground with them and play!), and then go out and rebuild your communities together with others.
Here is why: Your thoughts and prayers; your ears and eyes; your hands and shovels; your soups and breads; your hugs and smiles: these are the tools to help us rebuild. Your comforting touch, in whatever form it comes, but especially in the form of time and quiet presence, may be the greatest aid to your hurting neighbors and loved ones. We as a shared community, on our common ground, should use all these tool, and use them with love. We need each other.