Tsunami of Grief:

How to Respond When No Response Seems Appropriate

By Larry Stoler, Ph.D
WholeHealth Chicago Integrative Clinical Psychologist

The news that 20 elementary school children and seven adults were murdered in a Newtown, Connecticut, school spread through our offices like wildfire. We’re all still coping with grief, shock, disbelief, and outrage. Our hearts reach out to the families whose children were killed and to all who lost loved ones. Among the things we know for sure is that when a tragedy like this strikes, a wave of grief and loss envelopes people near and far even as the heartbreak re-opens old wounds in some with no direct connection to the Newtown families.

I’d like to share some thoughts about dealing with this unimaginable news and its aftermath. But first a word about context. The idea that an armed young man can break into a school and kill so many is shocking and terrible. That this took place in an elementary school in an upper middle class white suburb threatens to dismantle the notion of safety for many people, and yet in many of our cities it’s part of everyday life. Children are killed by gunfire near schools, on their front steps, walking down the street with their friends, even attending the funerals of loved ones who were murdered.

This is the world we are creating.

Thankfully, many of us don’t have to personally deal with such tragedies regularly, or ever. But we do have to cope with the impact of learning about such events, and we need to know how to respond. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Stop and observe your breath. This connects you to your life force, and ultimately to all of life. Share this skill with your children.
  • Allow yourself to fully experience the feelings you’re having. Feel what’s happening in your body. Next observe your thoughts, opinions, and interpretations, being a kind and compassionate observer of these feelings. Then set them aside for the moment.
  • Now remind yourself of the beauty in the world. Look at the face of someone you love, appreciating in a new way the beauty of who they are. Remember a beautiful place in nature that you’ve visited or seen a picture of…or actually get yourself out into nature. Surround yourself with this beauty.
  • Once you’ve gathered yourself in this way, you’ll be better prepared to respond to those around you.

Here are some ideas on responding to your children’s concerns:

  • Begin by really listening to the questions and comments they have. What is it they’re truly concerned about? Younger children may be worried about you and your upset, and they usually want concrete reassurance that their home, school, and teachers are safe.You can tell them they are safe. You can also tell them you feel sad for those who are suffering right now.
  • Your children may experience nightmares or have trouble sleeping. These are natural responses and usually pass. In general, support your children in their own feelings and reactions.  Hug them and tell them you love them.  Encourage them to express themselves through drawing or dance.
  • Children (and most adults) aren’t prepared to deal with a constant stream of bad news. And yet many of us permit ourselves to be bombarded with disturbing information, especially after a horrifying event like the school shootings. Remember that even young children hear the radio, TV, and computer (including when they’re in another room). Make a choice to turn off the news and turn on some beautiful music. Or, simply listen to the quiet.
  • Older children often have their own access to news through phone or computer, the information streaming in from their friends via social media not always reliable and often not comforting. This is a good time to teach your children about the hazards of overexposure to social media and a constant barrage of news. Set an example by not constantly leaving on your phone, radio, TV, or computer in order to limit the amount of bad news coming into your life.
  • Alongside this terrible tragedy, help all your children grasp the bigger picture, the powerful healing response pouring in from all over. Look for stories about this and share them with your children. Encourage them to write down their thoughts or to write their own stories. Light a candle.
  • Finally, look for actions you and your family can take to help others.
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