Coping with mass tragedy in a 'grief-phobic' society
What did you feel on the tenth anniversary of 9-11? Were youoverwhelmed? Tried to ignore it? Or did you find remembering that daycathartic? What are you feeling now, weeks later?
What did you feel on the tenth anniversary of 9-11? Were you overwhelmed? Tried to ignore it? Or did you find remembering that day cathartic? What are you feeling now, weeks later?
Understanding your feelings may help you understand something as ambiguous as grief.
Traditionally, doctors have thought we all go through the “grief cycle,” a classic model devised by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler Ross in the Sixties. She identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We may all go through them, though at different speeds.
It gets more complicated when dealing with large-scale disasters. Those who suffered no direct trauma will have an easier time moving on with their lives while those directly affected (physically or emotionally) face a long road to recovery. And sudden tragedies, like a tsunami or the recent mass shooting in Norway, take those affected by surprise, complicating the grieving process.
“We never get over a death or loss. We just learn to live life in a different way,” says Dr. Heidi Horsley, a grief expert. Normalizing your grief by speaking with others that have been through a similar experience will help you realize that feeling sad, angry and out of control is OK. Initially, denial is inevitable. It may even last forever. Horsley describes how after 9-11, many hoped their loved ones were walking around the city with amnesia, until they had seen their remains.
George Bonnano, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University in New York, says the most common response to extreme tragedy is resilience, with most people functioning relatively normally one month after the trauma.
“Being upset is how we cope with a tragic event, just like a fever is how we cope with infection,” he says. “Distress is our psychological fever, an indicator that we are doing something to adapt.”
Or as Horsley explains it: “Grief comes at us in waves. Initially we hold on to the memory of a loved one and the pain longer than we ought to in fear that letting go means we have forgotten. Time goes by and life moves on. We live in a grief-phobic society where there is little tolerance for grief over time.”
Her prescription: “Life is a temporary state so live every day as though it were your last.”
"I survived the Norway shootings"
On July 22, Adrian Pracon was shot at point blank range by right wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik on the Norwegian Island of Utoya, surviving by played dead amongst the corpses. Nearly two months on, he tells us how he’s coping with his grief
“It’s been very hard to deal with what happened. I spent the first week in hospital where I was consumed by guilt. He had the opportunity to kill me several times and didn’t—why did he spare me? Why did I survive and others didn’t? Then I realized this was all up to one man and that I couldn’t blame myself.
I went back to work for the Youth Party the day after I was discharged, to try and lead my life as normal. I became more inspired by my work, I haven’t been to see a psychologist. Instead, I’ve been having weekly meetings with a ghostwriter. This is the time I allocate to self-analysis. I feel no anger over what happened but distress. Understanding why he did this is impossible for someone with a sane mind.
My life is very much back to normal except for when I enter a room—I scan it for an escape route. I function thanks to my family, friends, colleagues and my dog—walking him has helped keep me grounded. I see the other survivors almost every day— we understand each other in a way friends and family can’t.
Many of them had tattoos related to their survival, such as the date or a victims’ name. I was shot in the shoulder at point blank range. I consider my scar as an involuntarily tattoo. The gunshot also reduced the hearing in my left ear by 40 per cent. I get irritated when I don’t hear what people say. I appreciate everything more now. We will never forget, just learn to live with it.”