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Interfaith Prayer Service for OK Tornado Victims - Coping With Tragedy

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